As crowds swoon, Tiger is close to winning again

Bob Lutz
Bob Lutz KSN File

For a guy who hasn’t been “relevant” since winning his last major golf championship in 2008, Tiger Woods sure is relevant.

Did you watch Sunday’s final round of the PGA Championship on CBS? That’s a silly and rhetorical question, because everybody watched. Ratings were up 69 percent over last year and were the highest for the tournament’s final round since 2009.

The crowds at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis were juiced and huge. Something tells me Tiger being in contention helped spin the turnstiles.

Woods is one of the most conflicting, complicated and confusing athletes in history. His life spun out of control after some messy personal issues came to the surface in 2009 and his golf career followed into a ditch.

Woods lost his marriage, lost his image and lost his ability to win major golf championships. A series of injuries requiring surgeries to his knees and back didn’t help, but the demons dancing inside Woods’ head were up all night.

To see Woods, at 42, pulling it together at this late stage is unexpected. Or predictable. I’m not really sure which one.

Are we shocked that Woods is again playing championship-caliber golf? Yes . . . and no. As with all things related to Woods, there is no easy answer.

Woods, remember, won 14 of 46 majors from 1997 into 2008. A lot of other golfers were competing in those majors, but Woods was on another plane.

Then came the adultery. And the bad PR. And the lack of contrition, at least not the kind of contrition the situation called for. Many of us, me included, were slow to forgive Woods for the embarrassment he caused his wife, his children, his family and his friends. The selfishness he exhibited was astonishing.

But time marches. And it often softens hostilities. The Woods who almost won the PGA Championship on Sunday – instead it was Brooks Koepka – was not the villainous Woods from years back.

He was Tiger. And the thousands of fans who packed Bellerive swung from his tail.

When Woods had back-to-back birdies on Nos. 12 and 13 on Sunday, the script seemed obvious. As I watched, I started wondering where a Woods major championship, 10 years since his last, would rank among the greatest accomplishments in sports.

Then, though, Woods had a bogey on No. 14. After a day of escaping tough situations, especially on the front nine where he couldn’t hit a fairway, Woods finally gave a shot back.

But he proceeded to birdie No. 15 before pars on the next two holes. By the time Woods sank a long putt on No. 18, to finish with a six-under 64, it was too late for it to mean much.

Koepka, who has won three of the past seven major tournaments, made sure of that. And by the way, this Koepka guy is pretty good. But how many golf fans can spell his last name? Or even pronounce it correctly?

And he’s the best player in golf, although there are so many good young players it’s difficult to keep track of them all.

Yet there was Tiger on Sunday, attempting to win his 15th major tournament. That would have left him only three short of tying Jack Nicklaus for the most majors ever.

There was a time when it appeared as if Woods would zoom past Nicklaus’s record. Twenty-five seemed reasonable given that Woods was only 32 when he won his 14th.

Nicklaus won nine of his majors after he turned 32, including a remarkable Masters victory in 1986 when he was 46.

Nicklaus, though, never watched his life crumble in controversy and shame. He never dealt with the injuries Woods has endured.

Which is why popular opinion was that Woods was unlikely to get unstuck on 14 major championships. Young players, reaping new technology and big muscles, aren’t intimidated by Tiger the way his contemporaries were.

Yet I didn’t see anyone at Bellerive in better shape than Woods. His dedication to golf is remarkable and his ability to overcome all of his injuries is uncommon.

There may be more injuries laying in wait for Tiger. His fused spine could give out on a moment’s notice. His knees are unreliable.

And by the time the Masters rolls around next April, Woods will be 43. He was in the hunt at the British Open and PGA Championship this year, but didn’t win. How many more chances will there be?

The answer to that question is as complicated as most of the answers to most of the questions surrounding Tiger Woods. He continues to tell us only so much, and nothing he doesn’t want us to know.

I guess we really don’t want to know much nowadays. Watching him play is enough. Watching him compete for a championship creates a national frenzy. It always has.

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