Despite falling three strokes short of The Open title on Sunday, Tiger Woods flexed his old championship form this weekend.  His comeback is just what the PGA Tour and the sports world need.

With a steady game all weekend, Francesco Molinari, who failed to notch a bogey for 38 straight holes through the eighteenth at Carnoustie on Sunday, became the first Italian national ever to win a Major event on the PGA Tour, finishing 72 holes at 8-under, two shots better than Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy, Kevin Kisner, and Xander Schauffele, all tied at 6-under for the tournament.

Although glorious in victory, Molinari’s partner during Sunday’s final round demonstrated a flair he had not mustered since his top-four finish at the 2013 Masters Tournament.

NBC, the network that hosted the 2018 British Open, reported that Sunday’s final round was the highest-rated Open Championship since Molinari’s beleaguered partner won his grand slam in 2000, tying viewership for the 2006 Open, posting ratings 38% higher than Jordan Spieth’s Open victory in Birkdale in 2017.

The reason?

Tiger Woods, Molinari’s aforementioned pairing mate, was in contention, donning his trademark red and black attire after moving four shots within tournament leaders Spieth and Kisner, both at 9-under, heading into Sunday’s action.

Ten years removed from his thrilling 2008 victory at the U.S Open, Woods, who shot a 34 on the front nine on Sunday on the heels of two birdies and his third front nine without a bogey on the weekend, held court at 7-under, holding a one shot lead as a result of Spieth, Schauffele, and Kisner falling back toward the pack.

At the start of the back nine at Carnoustie, Tiger fans took to Twitter to illustrate their rabid support for Woods’s legitimate shot at his fifteenth Major triumph.

Heading into trouble on the tenth after landing in a bunker on his second shot, Tiger rolled up his sleeves and reeled off a shot demonstrative of his previous championship form.

Woods would miraculously par the hole and maintain pole position in the proverbial driver’s seat heading into the final eight holes.  His play over 47 holes on Saturday and Sunday resembled a Major performance that was now his to lose.

Alas, his strife on the eleventh and twelfth holes played Tiger right out of the tournament, when he double bogeyed and bogeyed each hole respectively, putting Woods at 4-under.  Despite a birdie on the fourteenth, Tiger would finish The Open overall at 5-under, three shots away from Molinari’s consistent, if not Herculean, finish.

While Tiger’s rally fell short, there stood a slew of positives:

  • Wood’s 66, five-under performance on Saturday proved breathtaking:  while hitting 80% of fairways and 78% of greens in regulation, marks that would have placed him atop the field in both categories when measured for the length of 72 holes, Tiger averaged 327 yards on his drive, a positive sign that his health has returned.
  • On Saturday, Tiger managed six birdies, playing a near-flawless round, save for his bogey on 16, a hole that troubled him on Friday, when he also posted a bogey.
  • Given his top-six finish, Woods now rates in the top 50 in the PGA Tour field, a position that will allow Tiger to compete at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the last year of the tournament, in two weeks.  At WGC events, Woods has won an unprecedented 18 times.  The event in August will serve as the perfect precursor to the PGA Championship a week later.
  • On Sunday, Tiger had two opportunities to make up two strokes with birdie tries on 1 and 18, with both putts dragging left of the cup by a hair.  Tiger was thisclose to 7-under for The Open on the strength of his masterful play over 36 holes in which only three of them proved particularly troublesome.
  • In a tournament where McIlroy and Spieth faltered in the final round, the former doing so after a late, failed surge of his own, and in a field where Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas, ranked first and second in the world respectively, did not make the cut, Tiger held his ground, coming within two shots of the tournament lead after his birdie on the fourteenth on Sunday.

Had he completed the comeback on Sunday, Tiger would have won his first major tournament while coming from behind, a testament to his brilliance in his fourteen previous Major victories.  At 42, however, this is no longer the Tiger of old.  In the past, Woods’s playing partners traditionally buckled under pressure, but Molinari proved valiant and consistent as ever, showing no signs of being intimidated by one of the best golfers the sport has ever enjoyed.  Should Tiger’s next Major win ever arrive, we will likely watch him endure and surge from the middle of the pack to win, a feat that will make the comeback and subsequent triumph that much more compelling and satisfying.

Because of Tiger, the likes of the USGA have made courses ever more difficult for the field (see the 2018 U.S. Open results at Shinnecock Hills as evidence).  Because of Tiger, the likes of Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, and Xander Schauffele, all under the age of 30, save for DJ, were bred and inspired to play golf, expanding a field upon which any golfer can now win on any given Sunday, making the game as competitive as ever, only making it that much more arduous for Woods to come all the way back to win again consistently.  Because of Tiger, professional golf is as healthy and vibrant as it has ever been, more so if Woods replicates his performance at The Open on a more prominent basis.

August 9 to 12 of 2018 will commemorate the 100th playing of the PGA Championship, the final Major tournament of the year, at Bellerive Country Club near St. Louis.  It will also mark the next time Tiger plays for his elusive fifteenth Major victory, a ratings draw if ever there was one, more so if Tiger shines again at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio the week before.  According to International Business Times, Tiger enters the PGA Championship holding 16/1 odds to win, just behind Dustin Johnson, Rory, and Spieth, all with 12/1 odds to win.

In individual sport, nothing presently comes close to Tiger being in contention on a Sunday.  Not Rafa Nadal at Roland Garros, Serena Williams at Wimbledon, Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic playing for a Grand Slam, nor Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps persevering on the Olympic stage.  Tiger’s dominance and relevance can only be matched by Michael Jordan or LeBron James in their primes, with the intrigue of tallying more Majors, even if it means capturing just one, serving as the best story sports has to offer, even in spite of the extramarital scandal that brought Tiger and his career to its knees in November of 2008.  With the loss of his father Earl Woods, Tiger has never been quite the same, lacking in the mental fortitude that would have guided a younger Tiger through the proverbial landmines of Sunday’s tilt at Carnoustie.

But it is Tiger Woods, the father to two children, who remains focused, equal parts golfer and family man.  He noted that his children “have only seen the struggles” of his playing career, and a Major triumph is as much for them as it is for himself and his fans, who remain passionate as ever despite being ten years removed from the pinnacle of Tiger’s prime and peak health.

With only major league baseball in season, regardless of the pennant races that may ensue in August, Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship becomes the focal point of the sports world three weeks from now.  Should he make the cut (more so than ever, Woods will need to play better to compete in the opening rounds, not just on moving day), anything is possible, especially if he is within five shots of the leaders.

Should Tiger win at Bellerive, the story, given the magnitude of his scandal, personal issues, physical health, comeback, and redemption, immediately becomes the most important sports narrative of the 21st century, all but shoving Michael Phelps from his pedestal, regardless of the sheer amount of his gold medal victories.

Tiger Woods is inching his way back, but can he make it all the way back?  His success at the PGA Championship will hold the answer.

I am an English teacher, music and film aficionado, husband, father of two delightful boys, writer, sports fanatic, former Long Islander, and follower of Christ. Based on my Long Island upbringing, I was groomed as a Yankees, Giants, Rangers, and Knicks fan, and picked up Duke basketball, Notre Dame football, and Tottenham Hotspur football fandom along the way.