No sooner had Tiger Woods taken his first step across the Swilcan Bridge, the thousands of fans at St. Andrews crammed behind ropes, filling grandstands and squeezed onto overlooking balconies rose as one to applaud.
The ovation soundtracked the entirety of the 15-time major winner’s long walk down the Old Course’s 18th fairway, as a visibly emotional Woods – removing his hat to salute the reception – wiped away tears.
It remains to be seen whether one of golf’s greatest icons has played his final professional shot at one of the sport’s most iconic venues, but if this was to be goodbye, then it was a fitting send-off.
“The fans, the ovation and the warmth, it was an unbelievable feeling,” Woods told reporters.
“As I got closer to the green … the ovation got louder, you could feel the warmth and you could feel the people from both sides. Felt like the whole tournament was right there.”
To play his favorite course again had been the 46-year-old’s main focus during the grueling recovery process he has endured since a car accident in February 2021 left him with serious leg injuries.
A three-time Open champion – twice a winner at St. Andrews – any hopes of Woods lifting a fairytale fourth Claret Jug were dashed early after a difficult first round left him tied for 146th on his return to the clubhouse and 14 shots adrift of the leader.
It left him needing a miracle to make the cut and extend his potential farewell tour to the weekend. Despite an improved second round performance, a string of agonizingly short putts extinguished any faint chances of a fabled comeback as he finished nine over par.
Speaking on the eve of the event, Woods – despite asserting he felt “a lot stronger” – had been candid about accepting the new limits of his body. Having withdrawn from the PGA Championship in May, he completed his rounds at the flatter St. Andrews course but could be seen limping during parts of Friday’s session.
And with the Open not potentially returning to the ‘home of golf’ until 2030, Woods admitted he may have played his last Open at the venue.
“I’m not retiring from the game, but I don’t know if I will be physically able to play back here again when it comes back around,” Woods said.
“I’ll be able to play future British Opens, yes, but eight years’ time, I doubt if I’ll be competitive at this level.
“Life moves on, and I think that’s what people understand. They knew my circumstances this year, of just playing, period. I was very lucky to have had a great team around me to get me to where I was physically able to play three times this year and very thankful to all of them for getting me to this spot.”
With an estimated 290,000 spectators around the Old Course this week, for much of the event’s first two days, it felt like most of them were following Woods around the course, such was the fanfare wherever he went.
Crowds piled behind the ropes whenever he was at the tee, with three particularly enthusiastic Woods fans dressed head to toe in Tiger costumes. Though shooting just four birdies across the opening two rounds, each one was met with a level of crowd roar that suggested he was once again contending at the top of the leaderboard.
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His level of respect among fellow players was also evident, with Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas – moving down the adjacent first tee as Woods walked the 18th – both tipping their cap as he passed.
Earlier, world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler said he hoped he had not seen the last of Woods at St. Andrews.
“He’s a pretty resilient guy and he loves to compete,” he told reporters.
“We’ll see what he has in store for us the next few years. Any time you can see that guy out on the golf course, especially The Old Course, it’s really special.
“For us, as players, to have him around is pretty cool. When he got in that car wreck, didn’t know if we’d have him back. Just to have him out here playing golf is pretty special for all of us.”