Tiger Woods’ charge gives British Open a spark

There was a time this was expected. A time winning was the only measure of success for Tiger Woods. A time his name atop the leaderboard on Sunday at a major championship meant everyone else was playing for second, whether they admitted it or not. And some did admit it, frankly.

But it still made for a good story back then, still captured everyone’s attention — even those who didn’t care for the game of golf or it’s treasured traditions — and, above all, it kept everyone clamoring for more.

So when the time came Sunday, and that familiar name wasn’t just prowling in the final round of a major championship — Tiger Woods was leading the British Open, playing the back nine, no less — the reaction was understandable.

“Is this the year 2000?” NBC golf announcer Dan Hicks asked rhetorically, as Woods dazzled viewers with a flash of his old swashbuckling self, taking a violent swing out of a fairway bunker on the 10th hole at crusty ol’ Carnoustie, the recoil enough to make even my back wince.

But the answer would come soon enough, as things tend to do these days.

BRITISH OPEN FINAL RESULTS

Of course it’s not the year 2000. It’s 2018, and a lot of things have changed, not the least of which is the intimidation factor that used to be an essential part of Tiger Woods’ game. He’d wear his Sunday red, and more often than not, the rest of the golfers in contention would trip over themselves trying to get out of the way of the charging bull.

Not so, anymore, as 35-year-old Italian Francesco Molinari reminded us all Sunday, claiming the Claret Jug with a flawless finishplaying the final 36 holes without dropping a single stroke.

“To go the weekend bogey-free, it’s unthinkable, to be honest,” he told reporters after his final-round 69 on Sunday, ignoring the crowds and the commotion that comes with playing alongside Woods.

Not the same guy

Molinari politely referred to all that as a “challenge,” but whatever it was, he was up for it, continuing a white-hot roll this summer. Molinari boasts three wins and two runner-up finishes in his last six starts, including a runaway triumph at Woods’ own Quicken Loans National event in Washington, D.C. in late June. So while this was the first major title of his career — and the first for his country at the Open Championship — it certainly was no fluke for Molinari, who climbed to sixth in the world rankings with Sunday’s victory.

Yet it’s also no fluke that we all tuned in to watch. Sunday’s leaderboard was a made-for-TV dream here in the U.S., with a dozen players packed at the top highlighted by some of the game’s biggest names: Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose. Yet even they would tell you Woods’ mere presence — he led the tournament for less than a half-hour — changed the dynamics, and perhaps upped the ante.

“I’ve always wanted to battle it out in a major with Tiger. Who hasn’t?” Spieth said on the eve of the final round. “It’s kind of a dream come true just to have the opportunity.”

McIlroy was quick to note that this is a “different version” of the cat, “not (the) Tiger that Phil (Mickelson) and Ernie (Els) and those guys had to deal with” more than a decade ago.

“But he’s right there,” McIlroy told reporters. “He’s getting himself in the mix.”

And however it plays out in the end, he added, “it’s still great to have him back. It’s still great for golf.”

That’s undeniably true, no matter what you think of his return.

The last time Woods owned a piece of the lead on Sunday at a major was 2011 at the Masters. The last time he won one was 2008, when he outlasted Rocco Mediate to win a U.S. Open playoff at Torrey Pines, playing 91 holes on a broken leg and a torn ACL. He had surgery two days later, and his health — and personal life — continued to fall apart from there.

A year ago, he was a bleary-eyed mess, found asleep behind the wheel of his car near his home in Florida before entering rehab to battle an addiction to painkillers. Even after he’d regained his footing emotionally, Woods admitted last fall his playing career might be over after multiple back surgeries and a spinal fusion.

“I just didn’t know if I would ever be able to do it again,” he said last month.

‘Such a great feeling’

Which is why what he did this week in Scotland mattered, no matter how “ticked off” he was at himself when it was over, lamenting that 3-iron off the tee at No. 11, a couple handcuffed shots out of the rough and a flop shot at 12 that flopped, among other things.

On the whole, he said, “it was a blast” just to be in the hunt again. And after missing a final birdie putt on 18 — one that would’ve given him a share of second place, but nothing more, as it turned out — it was easy to see why as Woods stopped to share a hug with his two children, who’d been following his round on the course.

His daughter, Sam, who just turned 11 last month, was an infant the last time Woods won a major. His son, Charlie, wasn’t born until six months after that. Their father’s public persona has been more about salacious tabloid headlines than tournament wins ever since.

So, yes, this was “pretty emotional,” he acknowledged, “for them to understand what I was doing early in my career. The only thing they’ve seen is my struggles and the pain I was going through. Now they just want to go play soccer with me. Man, it’s just such a great feeling.”

Indeed, his back might be fused, but his mind seems free and clear now. And while Jack Nicklaus’ coveted record of 18 major titles still seems out of reach for the 42-year-old Woods, the growing notion he’ll finish his career stuck at 14 is on shakier ground now.

Television ratings, meanwhile, have spiked in conjunction with Woods’ comeback — at the Masters, at the Players Championships, even at last month’s National, which will be replaced on next year’s tour schedule by the tournament here at Detroit Golf Club. And there’s a reason there’s a $10 million made-for-TV match game being planned that’ll feature Woods vs. Mickelson: People will watch.

For those who weren’t watching, Woods just made things that much more interesting. The PGA Championship is three weeks away, but this British Open result means he gets another tune-up at the World Golf Championship event the week before the PGA. The top 50 players in the world rankings get in to that event at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio — the scene of Tiger’s last PGA Tour win in 2013 — and for the first time in four years, Woods, who was ranked as low as 1,199th last Thanksgiving, can now count himself in that group. He’s No. 50.

He’s also giving U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk something to think about as he mulls his roster for September’s biennial showdown in France. Furyk announced last winter that Woods would be part of the U.S. team as a vice captain. But Woods is making a strong case now to be a player-coach as one of Furyk’s four captain’s selections.

A few weeks ago, Furyk called Woods’ return to form “an eye-opener.”

Sunday, we all got another glimpse of just what that meant.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/JohnNiyo

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