On his final shot of the 2018 PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club outside St. Louis, Tiger Woods drained a 19-foot putt for birdie and let loose the most aggressive fist pump we’ve seen from him in years. More modest, follow-up fist pumps ensued, too.
Tiger waved his appreciation to the sea of roaring fans as he walked along the concourse from the green to the scorers’ tent to sign his scorecard. He had done it, he’d … reached 14-under par. That was two shots behind the leader, Brooks Koepka, who at no time during Sunday’s back-nine even entertained the possibility of collapsing. Koepka would go on to win by that two-stroke margin about half an hour later to an indifferent reception from the fans—an atypical reaction, you’d think, for a player who’d just won his second major of the year and third in the past two years. Were Tiger Woods still bedridden in Florida with an ailing back, and Koepka had instead merely bested third-place finisher Adam Scott, his accomplishment might be better appreciated. (Or might have just gone unwatched.)
Instead, it was overshadowed by Tiger’s most thrilling round in years—and he didn’t even play that well. He did not hit a single fairway on the front nine. He was able to survive, in part, because his drives were so offline that they reached the rough trampled down by spectators, beyond the chewy six-inch stuff just off the fairways.
When he did have a clean lie, he attacked. He showed on Sunday what made him (ARGUABLY, FINE) the best player of all time: being the best iron player of all time. He ended the week third in the field in strokes-gained approaching the green, which measures the quality of approach shots relative to the field. Not bad, after a first round that included a water-ball double-bogey on his second hole of the tournament. He gained 3.9 strokes against the field on his approach shots just on Sunday—best of anyone in the field—an out-of-this-world figure under the pressure of a final round in a major. His approaches on the first three holes went to 7 feet, 4 feet, and 2 feet. He made an 11-footer for a birdie on the 9th hole, a five-footer on the 12th, and a 10-footer on the 13th.
And then there was this on 15, after which your author Officially Died (but then came back to life, to blog):
How crisp was Tiger’s iron play? He finished 98th in the field in strokes-gained off the tee for the week, losing a full shot relative to the field on the final day. He was 122nd in driving accuracy. Had he been just a middling driver of the ball, he would have won the tournament. In spite of the poor driving—including a costly, over-cut driver on the easy par-5 17th hole that embedded near the bank of a creek—he shot a 64, tying the low round of the day. That 64 was his lowest final round ever in a major, and that includes all those years when he was winning major championships. (OK, sure, it was a pretty easy, damp course.) And he didn’t even play that well!
Tiger didn’t wilt under pressure, as he may have done last month at The Open at Carnoustie (where he finished tied for sixth.) He started too far back of Koepka and couldn’t catch up. His record of never winning a major without at least a share of the lead heading into Sunday stands.
What Tiger showed for the first time in this incredible comeback year is that he can complete a round when it counts. Maybe he can’t break the all-time PGA Championship scoring record, but he can post a 32 on the back nine instead of crumbling into a tie for 12th. That’s what the fist pump was for. It’s just a matter of time. He is back, duh.