ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Tiger Woods said “we had winter this morning and summer this afternoon,” and as he played the 18th hole at the Old Course, the sun ducked behind the clouds and the temperature seemed to drop 10 degrees again. He did not seem to notice and he sure didn’t care. What he saw was Rory McIlroy on the adjacent first hole, tipping his cap, and Justin Thomas on the first tee, nodding. What he heard was the crowd applauding, not like at the peak of Tigermania, but the way you might hear when the cast of a musical comes out and bows. What he felt were tears in his eyes. What he sensed were his playing partners, U.S. Open champ Matt Fitzpatrick and Max Homa, hanging back so he could walk over the Swilcan Bridge alone and salute the crowd. They knew, Tiger knows, everyone knows: The winter of his golf life is coming, and it’s coming fast.
Tiger used to run away from the field. This week, the field ran away from him. He shot 78-75 in mild conditions and played Friday’s whole back nine knowing he would miss the cut. Woods, who famously played all 72 holes here in 2000 without landing in a bunker, found three of them Friday. His putting was awful.
He was adamant that his career is not over: “I’m not retiring from the game.” But he talked about “the three events I played this year,” like his season is over, which it probably is – on July 15. He said, “I have nothing planned. Zero. Maybe something next year.”
We might see him at the Hero World Challenge in November, because he hosts it, or PNC Championship in December, because his son Charlie loves playing with him in it. But a real tournament? He wouldn’t even commit to playing before next year’s Masters.
“I understand being more battle-hardened, but it’s hard just to walk and play 18 holes,” he said. “People have no idea what I have to go through and the hours of the work on the body, pre- and post-, each and every single day to do what I just did.”
It was a remarkable achievement, and a reminder that we won’t see anything like his old remarkable achievements. Woods’s comeback from a 2021 one-car accident was astounding, but there is only so far he can go. His gait here definitely looked better than it did at the Masters in April or the PGA at Southern Hills in May. But if you stood close enough, you could see he is still struggling.
He does not have the game he once did. He just can’t practice enough. He can’t hone his skills under tournament pressure. What he does have, though, is an inner peace that seemed out of reach when he was a young man conquering the world. He used to say, without a hint of a smile, that he expected to win every tournament he played. This year, he said with 82 PGA Tour wins and 15 majors, he is comfortable with his achievements, even if he never wins again.
He used to overwhelm the sport. Friday, it overwhelmed him: “The warmth and the ovation at 18, it got to me.”
The R&A has only announced Open sites through 2025, but Woods and Jon Rahm both floated 2030 as the likely date of the next Open at St. Andrews. Rahm said he thinks that’s too far away for Woods – the kind of open questioning of Tiger that he used to punish. But Rahm is right. Woods said it himself: “I don’t know if I’ll be physically able to play another British Open here at St. Andrews. I certainly feel that I’ll be able to play more British Opens, but I don’t know if I’ll be around when it comes back around here. I’ll be able to play future British Opens, yes, but eight years’ time, I doubt if I’ll be competitive at this level.”
There is something undeniably sad about Tiger talking this way at 46. Great golfers often sneak back into the sunlight at advanced ages. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at 46 and contended there at 58. Tom Watson made a British Open playoff at 59. Sam Snead managed three straight top-10 finishes at the PGA Championship in his sixties.
At his best, Woods was better than any of them. With his athleticism and commitment, along with modern medicine and training, he could have contended well into his 50s. But his body was breaking down before the car accident. It’s now in a constant state of disrepair. He is almost certainly the only player on Tour with the mental toughness and physical ability to come back as far as he did. That is admirable. It also surely contributes to the sense of peace.
Golf mixes ceremony and competition in ways that other sports don’t. No matter how many tears flow, there is still golf to be played, and golfers tend to care about how well they play golf. Earlier in the day, 1989 champion Mark Calcavecchia finished his final round at the Open. It didn’t mean much to fans – the grandstand behind the 18th green was almost empty – but it meant a ton to Calcavecchia. He was emotional walking over the Swilcan Bridge. Then his pitch skidded past the hole, and Calcavecchia shook his head at how fast it was.
Woods has an acute sense of golf history. He remembers watching Arnie and Jack in their last rounds here. He appreciated the love he got from the crowd. But he also said, “I’m a little ticked that I’m not playing the weekend.” That is Tiger Woods, the greatest competitor the game has ever seen.