As Tiger Woods sat in the scorers’ room at Bellerive Country Club, forced to look once again at the ugliest 64 he’d ever shot in his life, he sighed and rolled his eyes. A few hundred yards away, Brooks Koepka was in the process of finishing off a relentless, robotic round to win the 2018 PGA Championship. Koepka had done something that no one from Woods’ era had done: stared Tiger in the eye … and flexed.
In the end, Woods finished two strokes behind Koepka in solo second place. It’s his best performance in a major in nearly 10 years, since another solo second finish at the 2009 PGA Championship. That one probably hurt more, since Woods had the lead and lost it to Y.E. Yang, but this one’s going to burn for a long time … because Woods left well more than two strokes out there on the course.
Let’s permit the great golf writer Dan Jenkins to set the stage:
How many "what if?" moments does that make for Tiger? I've lost track.
— Dan Jenkins (@danjenkinsgd) August 12, 2018
Every round, every tournament has a range of what-ifs, but let’s dig into this year’s model:
What if Woods had converted that eagle putt at 17 on Saturday?
Woods was starting to make a run on Saturday afternoon, and his second shot on the par-5 17th, the easiest hole on the course, ended up settling 19 feet from the hole. That’s 19 feet for an eagle that would have pulled him to within three strokes of Koepka. But Woods inexplicably three-jacked from there, walking off the green with a par rather than a red number. That deep into a tournament, those are the holes that you start to think could come back and hurt.
What if Woods had knocked down a couple birdies during his long dry streak?
From the middle of the round on Saturday through the first hole on Sunday, Woods had nine – NINE – birdie chances that he failed to convert. On a weekend when everybody except Rickie Fowler was throwing dart after dart and birdieing every hole in sight, scoring par meant you were virtually moving backwards.
What if Woods’ driver hadn’t misfired early on Sunday?
Look, it’s tough to nitpick a front nine where Woods carded four birdies against one bogey. But he missed his first seven fairways, and was scrambling from various depths of rough on every non-par-3 hole. What if he’d been able to conserve a little mental and physical energy, what if he’d given himself the opportunity to be creative without having to throw up SportsCenter highlights? And as we’d soon see, Woods’ struggles off the tee didn’t stop after he’d made the turn.
What if the putt at 11 had rotated once more?
This one was just brutal:
How did this not fall? 🐅 #PGAChamp
— PGA of America (@PGA) August 12, 2018
It’s almost better that Koepka won by two strokes. If this had been the deciding factor, Woods would have every right to trash his rental house Sunday night. It’s like the reverse of the famed Augusta chip from 2005; the ball hesitated … and didn’t go in.
What if the putt at 14 had circled into the cup?
Similar to 11, this was a putt you were sure was going in until it didn’t, a putt that went a full 270 degrees around the cup before deciding, nah. This came at the worst possible time, as Koepka and Adam Scott were starting to pull away behind Woods, and a birdie here would have kept pace. And, if you feel like a real kick to the gut, think of this: between this and 11, Woods carded two strokes that traveled a total of two inches.
What if Woods hadn’t almost put his tee shot into the creek at 17?
This was the backbreaker. With just two holes left to make up ground, Woods needed to go no worse than two-under on the final two holes to give himself a shot. But instead, he started 17 by skulling one of his worst shots of the tournament, one that virtually landed in a creek that ran alongside the right side of the hole. It cost Woods at least one stroke in the recovery, and the deflation of the gallery at that moment could’ve knocked the Goodyear blimp off course.
What if Koepka had blinked?
This, above all, is the key. Woods never ran down anyone on a Sunday in his prime to win a major, largely because he didn’t have to – he’d already broken them Thursday, Friday and Saturday. But Koepka had just graduated from high school back when Woods won his last major. Koepka’s not intimidated by the best in his era; he’s certainly not going to get intimidated by someone he only knows from video games and remember-when clips.
For all of Woods’ missed opportunities, the fundamental truth is this: Koepka didn’t give him a real chance. And that’s the key to Woods’ future in majors – if he’s going to win, he’s going to have to outwork, outhustle and outplay guys that are two decades younger than him … and that’s going to mean converting many more of those “what ifs” into “what happened.”
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