ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The roars finally died down when Tiger Woods reached for his ball, if only because everyone knew the roar could start again soon enough.
Woods was, perhaps for the last time as a British Open contender, at No. 18 on the Old Course in St. Andrews. He had sealed two triumphs here, completed the Grand Slam career here, dreamed for years of being here.
And now, after a tee shot under familiarly granitic Scottish skies, Woods knew it could be over, for good, in minutes.
Cheers rumbled from the stands, and not just those along No 18, as fiercely as they did when Woods tipped his cap on the Swilcan Bridge minutes after 3 p.m. He had rubbed his eyes on the promenade, had tilted his cap a little more, and then, finally, the spectators and even the seagulls fell silent.
It would take him three more strokes to complete the par hole, almost – and only almost – as if he just wanted one more moment at St. Andrews instead of one more birdie. The roars started again, as if he had won a fourth Open.
But he hadn’t. At nine over par after two rounds, 17 months after the California car crash that nearly cost him his right leg, he missed the cut. Her Sunday ritual red outfit would stay packed this time, and maybe forever, from St. Andrews.
“I don’t know if I will be physically able to play another British Open here at St. Andrews,” Woods said afterwards. “I definitely think I can play more British Open, but I don’t know if I’ll be there when it comes back here. So the warmth and the ovation at 18, it got to me.
He had seen and heard of quarries opening at dusk in St. Andrews. In 1995, when he was 19, walking to the practice field and missing one of the 15 majors he would win, he saw Arnold Palmer tee off. . A decade later, the noise that followed Jack Nicklaus echoed across the relatively flat confines of the world’s oldest course.
It’s unclear whether Friday was Woods’ last Open at St. Andrews, but it will be years before he returns to the Old Course, and Woods, broken down and rebuilt so many times over the decades, has 46 years. He hasn’t committed to any tournaments for next year and repeated that he’s been begging to be at this particular Open, the 150th and most recent at St. Andrews, his favorite course.
He could come back, maybe with his son, for a game on the Old Course. (“I can have a tee time,” he said with a smile.) But all week the prospects for a Woods retreat seemed better than a Woods wish, or just an audible aspiration, of be back in a St Andrews Field.
So an even bigger thicket of spectators, probably 20 or more deep in some pockets, than usual has followed him since he left Friday morning.
“It counts as watching Tiger shoot,” said one man as Woods just walked past him on the 16th fairway.
“Tiger, you better do that,” a woman said before a putt on that hole.
“Oh my God,” she repeated after he missed her.
“St. Andrews loves you, Tiger!” someone else shouted.
The spectators did, even though Woods’ final score suggested otherwise.
His Friday outing, a three over par 75, was better than Thursday’s outing, when he finished six over and 14 shots off the lead. In the two days of competition, he never quite connected with the greens of St. Andrews, those vast expanses he had dominated so much, with one putt after another slowing down and then coming to a stop too short. Thursday he started with a tee shot in a divot.
And so, by the time Woods entered the starting box at No. 18, the first of his group to arrive, all aspirations of another pot of claret, even another cut made, had evaporated. Yet he was not thinking, he would later say, of anything beyond club selection: 3 wood or 5 wood.
He opted for chipping with the former. He left the tee and felt that Matt Fitzpatrick, who later admitted to having goosebumps, and Max Homa had stopped. He wondered where his caddie, Joe LaCava, was, but soon saw that he was falling behind.
“That’s when I started thinking, the next time it happens here, maybe I won’t be here,” Woods said. The tears didn’t come immediately, but Rory McIlroy tipped his cap, players on the first tee were destined to see Woods in his own twilight, possibly at St. Andrews.
Eventually, the men of Game 46, including a PGA Championship winner and an Open winner, continued because they had to.
They kept looking back, however. Woods looked ahead, searching, at least one last time, for the 18th cup.