SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Steve DiMeglio was on hand to witness a vintage performance from Tiger Woods at the Open Championship. Even though he didn’t win, is it safe to say Tiger is back?
Tiger Woods winning another major, maybe even catching Jack Nicklaus, is no longer wishful thinking.
That’s the takeaway from his tie for sixth at the British Open. Not that he blew a lead with eight holes to play, dropping three strokes in two holes. Or that he had to scramble just to hang onto his final spot.
For about an hour Sunday, Woods was once again the player who ruled golf, bending Carnoustie to his will while, one by one, his competitors buckled. When his name was the only one at the top of the leaderboard, it seemed almost inevitable that he would finish the day by hoisting the Claret Jug.
That didn’t happen, of course.
But it’s only a matter of time until it does.
“I need to try and keep it in perspective because, the beginning of the year, if they’d have said you’re playing The Open Championship, I would have said I’d be very lucky to do that,” Woods said after his best finish at a major in five years.
“I know that it’s going to sting for a little bit here, but given where I was to where I’m at now, blessed.”
For the last few months now, the idea that Woods could come close to his old, dominating self seemed rooted more in nostalgia than reality. There’s more substance to this comeback than the previous ones, as evidenced by consecutive top-five finishes at Valspar and Bay Hill. But he’s still a 42-year-old with a fused back — not to mention a rebuilt knee and a patched up Achilles.
He was never a factor at the Masters, where he finished tied for 32nd. After a dismal showing at the U.S. Open, where he didn’t even make the weekend, many quietly resigned themselves to the idea that Woods’ days as a major champion — perhaps a champion of any kind — were over. There would be no matching or surpassing Nicklaus’ record of 18. He, and we, would have to be content with the 14 he already has.
Woods, however, has said repeatedly that this is a process. That no one, himself included, can expect him to return to the top of his game overnight, or even over the course of just a few months.
He has to recover his swing and his putting stroke. He also has to re-learn how to grind, using each day as a springboard for the next. He even has to get comfortable trusting his body that is free of debilitating pain for the first time in years.
He’s still not quite there, but he’s close. And there was one shot Sunday that proves it.
Woods hit into a fairway bunker off the 10th tee. His lie wasn’t bad — Kevin Kisner gladly would have taken it — but it looked as if he might have to hit sideways to get out. Instead, he hit a wedge with such speed and torque the club wrapped almost around his back on the follow-through.
The ball landed on the green.
Woods would miss the birdie putt, but that’s not the point. That bunker shot is the kind of magic trick that was routine during the Tiger Slam Era. And it’s a shot he’d never even consider if he still had any fears about his back.
“At the time, I thought that was the tournament,” Woods said. “Either I hit the shot and it clears the burn, or I hit it right next to my feet. I’ve got to try and pull it off. I stepped on it and pulled it off.”
The one area of Woods’ game that remains lacking is his ability to close. After saving par from the bunker on 10, he took himself out of contention with a double bogey on 11 — his first of the week — and a bogey on 12.
In 13 tournaments this year, he’s been below par for the final nine holes in just five of them. Valspar is the only event in which he didn’t have at least one bogey or double bogey on his final back nine.
“I had a chance starting that back nine to do something, and I didn’t do it,” Woods said.
He will. After Sunday, the question is no longer can Tiger Woods win again.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.