GULLANE, Scotland – They gave Tiger Woods a standing ovation as he walked down the 18th fairway Sunday, because that's what the golf fans do here.
They honor their legends.
Even the fading ones.
Woods' final walk at Muirfield was just a walk. Not a coronation, not a victory lap. He lifted his cap to acknowledge the applause, but nothing was at stake. The British Open was over – Phil Mickelson was already in the clubhouse with an insurmountable lead after a brilliant closing 66.
On the holes leading toward the finish, the gallery following Woods and Adam Scott had steadily dwindled, taking the noise and enthusiasm with them. Most fans had followed the roars up ahead, flocking to Mickelson. Woods plodded forward under the leaden sky with his hands shoved in his pockets, cold wind whipping his black trousers, with the remaining fans watching him seeming almost melancholy.
Woods was playing out the final strokes of a dispiriting 74 – a frustration-filled round that took him out of contention for his 15th major championship and extended his streak to 17 straight majors he's played in without winning.
There was no Sunday magic. Again.
And as another major slid by with someone else's hands on the hardware, the window of opportunity to win five more majors and surpass Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 closes another crack. There is still time – especially over here, where Mickelson became the third straight Open champion in his 40s – but one more chance has come and gone.
In what has become a familiar media dance during The Great Five-Year Drought, Tiger stubbornly tried to minimize the big picture. He wanted to talk about the difficulty getting a handle on the changing speeds of the greens, not on another in a series of lackluster weekend rounds in a major. He insisted that his game is in good shape, while never addressing how much more fallible his game has become.
"I'm very pleased with the way I'm playing, there's no doubt," he said.
But really, there has to be doubt. Plenty of doubt.
He may be too proud to admit it publicly. But he's too smart not to feel it gnawing at his uber-competitive insides.
Tiger Woods didn't become an international sensation with plucky iron play that merely kept him in the mix to win the big tournaments. Tiger Woods didn't become the richest athlete in the world by hoping he could luck into an occasional long putt. Tiger Woods didn't set his sights on becoming the G.O.A.T. of golf by hanging around on the leaderboard and hoping everyone else blew it.
He knows all that.
He can still play well – well enough to win PGA Tour events and well enough to contend in the majors. But can he still play well enough to win those majors? Can he still seize the big opportunities, master the pressure moments, make the clutch shots when he has to?
"I've won 14, and in that spell where I haven't won since Torrey [Pines], I've been in there," Woods said. "It's not like I've lost my card and I'm not playing out here. So I've won some tournaments in that stretch and I've been in probably about half the majors on the back nine on Sunday with a chance to win during that stretch. I just haven't done it yet."
Actually, whatever chance Woods had to win on the back nine Sunday was fleeting and far-fetched. He was never closer than two shots to the lead, and even then only briefly. Five bogeys in the first 11 holes – some attributable to bad putting, some to bad iron play, some to awful drives – marginalized his chances.
Which should make this major all the more frustrating. Because in the five years since winning the U.S. Open on one leg, this was Tiger's best chance to end the streak.
He'd played steady golf on a course that was destroying ordinary golfers, executing a conservative gameplan and avoiding major disasters. While others were blowing up, he hit fairways with irons off the tee, then hit greens in regulation, then dropped in the occasional putt. Even after a pedestrian Saturday round left him 1-under par and two shots off the lead, Woods was a popular pick to overhaul fragile leader Lee Westwood and win the thing with just one more solid round.
"I always feel good about his chances," said caddie Joe LaCava. "I thought 1-under was the number. I didn't see anybody getting lower."
Mickelson got two strokes lower, as it turned out. ("Pretty salty," was LaCava's description of that 66.) That at least allowed all the guys who moved backward – the final three pairings of Woods, Scott, Westwood, Hunter Mahan, Angel Cabrera and Ryan Moore combined to shoot 23-over – to feel a little better.
"If he would have posted 1 [under], it would have been a different story," Woods said. "I think a lot of us would have been a little more ticked than we are now. But he posted a 3. That's a hell of a number."
The dazzling low numbers used to be posted by Tiger in the big tourneys, while Phil was the guy who often came up short on Sunday. But those days continue to recede into the distance.
If there was something gained by Woods on Sunday, it was the apparent healing words exchanged with former caddie Steve Williams. The former friends were in the same pairing, since Williams is Scott's caddie, and according to LaCava the two had a conversation on the eighth fairway during the round. Then when the round was over, Williams spoke to Woods while clasping his hand, then patted his shoulder.
"Life's too short, right?" LaCava said. "I'm glad Stevie's making the effort, and Tiger's accepting the effort."
But the look on Lindsey Vonn's face when her boyfriend walked off the course made clear that the pain of this defeat was palpable. Fred Couples' girlfriend, Nadine Moze, reflexively gave Vonn a hug.
When the champion skier caught up with Tiger after his post-round interview, the exchange was brief: a quick kiss and a half-hug. Then they were escorted to a waiting Mercedes-Benz courtesy vehicle, climbing in the backseats. After LaCava put Woods' golf bag in the trunk, they were driven off the premises.
They left behind a celebration – Mickelson cavorting around the 18th green with the claret jug, flashing his goofy smile for everyone who wanted to take a picture.
The celebrations always belong to someone else these days. Tiger Woods is always the one leaving early and moving on, hoping the next major will be the one where he reconnects with his glorious past.
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