ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The roars at last ebbed when Tiger Woods reached his ball, if only because everyone knew the clamor could start again soon enough.
Woods was, perhaps for the last time as a British Open competitor, on No. 18 on the Old Course at St. Andrews. He had sealed two triumphs here, completed the career Grand Slam here, dreamed for years of being here.
And now, following a tee shot beneath a familiarly granite Scottish sky, Woods knew it might be over, for good, in minutes.
The cheers rumbled down from the grandstands, and not just the ones along No. 18, as ferociously as they did when Woods tipped his cap on the Swilcan Bridge a few minutes past 3 pm He had rubbed his eyes on the walk, tipped his cap some more, and then, at last, the spectators and even the sea gulls fell silent.
It would take him three more strokes to finish the hole at par, almost — and only almost — as if he wanted just one more moment at St. Andrews instead of one more birdie. The roars began again, as if he had won a fourth Open.
But he had not. At nine over par after two rounds, 17 months after the car wreck in California that nearly claimed his right leg, he missed the cut. His ritual Sunday-round red outfit would stay packed away this time, and maybe forever, from St. Andrews.
“I don’t know if I’ll be physically able to play another British Open here at St. Andrews,” Woods said afterward. “I certainly feel that I’ll be able to play more British Opens, but I don’t know if I’ll be around when it comes back around here. So the warmth and the ovation at 18, it got to me.”
He had seen and heard open careers in twilight at St. Andrews. In 1995, when he was 19, headed towards the practice range and lacking any of the 15 majors he would go on to win, he saw Arnold Palmer hit a tee shot. A decade later, the noise that followed Jack Nicklaus pealed across the relatively flat boundaries of the world’s oldest course.
It is no certainty that Friday was Woods’s final Open at St. Andrews, but it will be years before he returns to the old course, and Woods, broken down and rebuilt so many times over the decades, is 46. He has not committed to any tournaments for next year and said again that he had craved being At this particular Open, the 150th and the latest at St. Andrews, his favorite course.
He could return, perhaps with his son, for a round on the Old Course. (“I’m able to get a tee time,” he said with a grin.) But all week long, the prospects of a Woods retirement seemed better than a Woods vow, or simply an audible aspiration, to be back in a St. . Andrews field.
So an even bigger thicket of spectators, probably 20-deep or more in some pockets, than usual trailed him since his start on Friday morning.
“That counts as watching Tiger take a shot,” one man said as Woods merely walked past him on the 16th fairway.
“Tiger, you’d better make this,” one woman said before a putt on that hole.
“Oh, my God,” she piped up again after he missed.
“St. Andrews loves you, Tiger!” shouted someone else.
The spectators did, even if Woods’s final score suggested otherwise.
His outing on Friday, a three-over-par 75, was better than Thursday’s, when he finished at six over and 14 shots off the lead. Over the two days of competition, he never quite connected with the St. Andrews greens, those vast expanses he had so dominated, with one putt after the next slowing down and then stopping too short. On Thursday, he started with a tee shot into a divot.
And so, by the time Woods entered the tee box at No. 18, the first in his group to arrive, any aspirations of another claret jug, even another made cut, had evaporated. Yet he was not, he would say later, thinking about anything beyond club selection: 3-wood or 5-wood.
He opted for chipping with the former. He left the tee and felt that Matt Fitzpatrick, who later confessed to goose bumps, and Max Homa had paused. He wondered where his caddy, Joe LaCava, was but soon saw him trailing behind.
“That’s when I started thinking about, the next time it comes around here I might not be around,” Woods said. The tears did not come immediately, but there was Rory McIlroy tipping his cap, the players at the first tee fated to see Woods in his own twilight, maybe, at St. Andrews.
Eventually, the men in Game No. 46, including a PGA Championship winner and an Open winner, walked on because they had to.
They kept looking back, though. Woods peered ahead, looking, at least one last time, for the 18th cup.