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For so many days and weeks we’ve heard the game’s best pay homage to the Old Course and what it truly means to play at the home of golf. It is sometimes difficult to truly appreciate why, in the words of Woods, this place is “special” and, well, “just different”. But amid a masterclass from Cameron Smith to storm into a commanding lead heading into the weekend, it will be the images of Woods’ walk up the 18th fairway that will evoke the deepest of passion for this game for many years to come.
Vintage Woods emerged only in flashes this week as the 15-time major winner struggled with the speed of the greens throughout two frustrating days, missing the cut and posting a score of nine over par. But despite languishing from the moment his ball found a fresh divot on the first yesterday, Woods’ competitive edge refuses to desert him, emphasising he’s still “a little ticked” to miss the weekend. So often steely-eyed, Woods was overcome by the outpouring of gratitude and adulation surrounding him on the iconic 18th.
“It’s very emotional for me,” Woods admitted. “I’ve been coming here since 1995, I don’t know when – I think the next one comes around in what, 2030 – and I don’t know if I will be physically able to play by then.
“So to me it felt like this might have been my last British Open here at St Andrews. And the fans, the ovation and the warmth, it was an unbelievable feeling.”
There was even a magical moment on the periphery of this movie-like scene, illustrating how much his contemporaries revere him.
Playing partners Matt Fitzpatrick and Max Homa held back to allow Woods centre stage on the Swilcan Bridge, while a revitalised Rory McIlroy, battling to break an eight-year drought in the majors this week, briefly froze to soak in the atmosphere and tip his cap to his childhood hero from the opposite side of the fairway.
“It was pretty cool,” Woods added with a beaming smile. “The nods I was getting from guys as they were going out and I was coming in, just the respect, that was pretty neat.
“And from a players’ fraternity level, it’s neat to see that and feel that. The ovation got louder and louder, you could feel the warmth and you could feel the people from both sides. Felt like the whole tournament was right there.”
After crawling around the Old Course yesterday in a round of 78 that took more than six hours and finished up past 9pm, Woods walked gingerly to the first tee this morning a little more than 12 hours later.
A feverish crowd gathered in hope, looking to inspire an unlikely push to extend this fairytale to the weekend. But this was initially a restrained Woods, sensing the magnitude of the challenge he faced. A rare birdie arrived at the third, draining a 15-foot putt to provoke that familiar roar. But Woods merely offered a delicate roll of his fingers in acknowledgement.
Any hope of the old Tiger returning soon vanished though as the bite from early damp and chilly conditions took over. Woods’ clubs came loose on three occasions over the next three holes.
The first occasion, on the fourth, saw Woods hang the club out left with after producing a puff of dirt following a chunky contact. It became another of those miserable holes this week after a torturous three-putt soon arrived, forcing him to stumble back to square one at six over par.
Still clasping his putter with a burning fury while marching to the fifth tee box, Woods maintained a sense of disbelief as a once formidable weapon deceived him again. One regret this week may be how he routinely failed to cut those monstrous putts down to size, and the issue re-emerged after three attempts to negotiate 116 feet on the fifth.
But despite his struggles, Woods showed tremendous resolve, establishing a streak of nine gritty pars before succumbing to the 16th following an errant tee shot. Exasperated, Woods puffed his cheeks after bending over to retrieve his divot, a trickle of sweat running down his brow as the gloomy conditions from earlier made way for glorious sun.
The lingering pain became full blown agony when his third shot looped up and smacked into the lip of the bunker, prompting groans from the crowd as it cruelly rolled down into the sand. It led to a double bogey and sent him tumbling back to nine over par.
But it was now time for Woods to begin savouring the remaining minutes of what may be remembered fondly as his final competitive round on this hallowed turf in an Open Championship.
“I had a few tears,” Woods concluded. “I’m not one who gets very teary-eyed very often about anything. But I felt that as I was coming in.
“The people knew that I wasn’t going to make the cut at the number I was. But the ovations got louder as I was coming home. And that, to me, just felt like respect.”