If golf is a good walk spoiled, nobody spoils more than Tiger Woods.
Eight years after his last major victory, rapidly approaching 40 years old and with serious injuries to his back and legs in his recent past, Woods remains the greatest draw in golf. He’s been passed by younger players. His quest to top Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major wins appears over. Woods entered the Quicken Loans National, which evenly straddled July and August, ranked 197th in the World Golf Rankings; he needed a win to become eligible for the following week’s World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational — a tournament he’s won eight times, most recently in 2013, in its 16 years of existence.
Yet, Woods arguably is still the face of the game. He may be more sideshow than main event, but Tiger Woods still matters. And that’s why more fans walked with him than any other golfer over the weekend at Robert Trent Jones golf club, just outside Washington, D.C. Golf hordes are like armies, sharing a hive mind, greater in whole than the sum of the parts, yet responsive to the whims and strategic successes and failures of a solitary commander. Woods still directs the largest force.
This is the terrain they faced. From above, the club looks like a natural V, 45 degrees askew to the west, with the right side flattened and stretched. Lake Manassas sits to the club’s south, and the 13th hole juts into the lake on a small peninsula. Three miles to the east, or roughly in line with a shot from the sixth tee — the first major battle of the Civil War, the First Battle of Bull Run, was fought in July 1861.
There, Union general Irvin McDowell marched his inexperienced troops to a surprise attack of the Confederate forces, led by PGT Beauregard. McDowell’s plan initially was successful, but the Confederates fell back to Henry Hill, where a brigade of Rebels from Virginia, led by Gen. Thomas Jackson, repelled the Union troops, earning Jackson the nom de guerre “Stonewall.” After Confederate reinforcements arrived, the Union side was defeated and retreated back to nearby Washington, D.C. The retreat was complicated by spectators from nearby Washington. Today, a national park commemorates the spot. Just to the south, there is a waterpark.
Woods, who insists he’s healthy, appeared stocky yet fit over the weekend and said he recently returned from a vacation with his children — diving, snorkeling and spearfishing — after he missed the cut at the Open Championship at St. Andrews. Woods holds three Open titles, including 2000, when he set the tournament’s 72-hole record to par, which still stands. Woods on Sunday was clean shaven, after experimenting with a goatee in years past, and the hair on his head continued its steady retreat. He wore a pink shirt, with two horizontal white stripes, black pants and a black cap, marked with his familiar logo on the front. Famously private — and not without reason — he nonetheless spoke often of his children before and during the tournament. After missing the cut at St. Andrews during the Open Championship in July, Woods says he took his children on a vacation — diving, snorkeling and spearfishing while many of his peers played a tournament on a course where he still holds the 72-hole record to par.
Thus, the rank-and-file follow him because of the memories of what he was and visions of what he again could be. After a promising start to the tournament for Tiger and his troops, Saturday was a slog, as Woods carded a 3-over 74. On a day when virtually everybody went low, Woods torpedoed his tournament hopes, tumbling from fifth place to 42nd and nine shots off the pace. He needed a miracle on the final day, and for the front nine, he was ready to do his part, birdieing the third, fourth, fifth and ninth holes to hit the turn 4-under for the round and within shouting distance of the leaders. He then birdied the 10th to reach 10-under for the tournament.
Their general had bounce in his step. The army of donkeys, as the saying goes, was led by a lion. But, as has so often been the case for Woods in his decline, he couldn’t hold the line. Woods bogeyed three of the next four holes to squash what little hope he had for victory. In many ways, the story of Woods’ career decline was told during the course of two bogeys in the second half of his round.
His bogey on the par-4 12th hole was preceded by perhaps his most spectacular shot of the day, when he drove his tee shot right of the fairway, down a steep incline and into a swamp. After taking a drop, Woods blistered his 5-wood up the dramatic incline at the pin, which was obscured by the hill. The ball wound up on the green, 18 feet from the hole, from which he two-putted. The gallery walked past the spot of Woods’ approach shot, admiring the divot and snapping pictures, as if it were an image of the Virgin Mary. This was the Woods of legend.
His bogey on on the par-5 14th was far more mundane. Woods drove the rough but placed his second shot on the fairway with a solid angle to score points. He left his third shot short, however, so his dramatic backspin rolled the ball into the water to the green’s south side. Woods took the penalty and a drop, then placed his fifth shot seven feet from the hole, giving him an easy finish for bogey. This was the Woods of the present.
As he walked up the par-4 18th fairway, he was joined by thousands of fans and a blimp. The people scurried about, searching for the optimal viewing angle to watch his approach. The blimp, sponsored by MetLife, quietly puttered overhead with the same aim. Overhead, wisps of stratus clouds did little to block the sweltering sun.
Fans dotted the northern edge of the fairway and filled the grandstand erected to overlook the hole. Bros in fluorescent polo shirts puffed on cigars upwind of the hole. After a strong tee shot, Woods placed his approach within 18 feet, to the delight of the assembled masses. He doffed his cap to hearty applause, then two-putted to end his round, well off the pace, showing enough promise to encourage himself and those who still dared to suspend disbelief.
They are an army of lions, but their leader is no longer.
Woods wasn’t the only golfer with a following. Rickie Fowler, the 16th-ranked player in the world and perennially on the cusp of breaking through, was trailed by a marauding band of orange-and-white-clad creamsicles. Their king, who attended Oklahoma State, likewise wore a polo shirt that matched his school’s colors, with stylishly faded white stripes, white pants and a white hat with an orange script Puma written across the top. He had the torso of a leaping cat carved into the silver buckle of his orange belt.
Fowler finished second in the tournament to a virtual unknown named Troy Merritt, whose blistering 61 on Saturday set a new course record. It also gained him a substantial following during Sunday’s final round; he played in the final pairing with Billy Chappell, but few in the crowd rooted for the latter. They will follow a lion, if only for a day.
Merritt had not made a cut since the Memorial during the first week of June, a span of five starts. After taking his star turn Saturday, Merritt sent a self-deprecating tweet: “Apparently playing on Saturday is a good thing – might want to try it more often!!” He added to his lead Sunday and finished with the course’s 72-hole record at 266, besting by one a mark Woods shared with Nick Watney. Merritt’s win earned him fully exempt status on the PGA Tour through the end of next season; he surely will play on more weekends over the coming months.
At 29, Merritt said he set two goals earlier this year to be accomplished before he turned 30: He wanted to win his first tournament and play in his first major. He qualified for the PGA Championship later this month. In addition to $1.2 million in prize money, he earned the Quicken Loans National Trophy — a sterling replica White House — for his first career victory. Not a bad way to check a box.
Asked what he would do with his payday from the week, Merritt mused that he may eventually fix his cracked iPhone, but not immediately. He says he has an epic game of Candy Crush going.
Of course, everything at the Quicken Loans National — indeed, in golf — comes back to Woods. In addition to inspiring a generation of young players — Merritt said he took up the game in part because he looked up to Tiger — Woods organized and hosted the tournament. The proceeds benefited his foundation. So perhaps he had an added edge when it came to drawing a crowd; this was, after all, his party, albeit at a rented house.
If it was his party, though, he didn’t stay until the end. Despite lingering for several minutes to sign autographs after his round ended, Woods was nowhere to be found during the trophy presentation. In the interest of fairness, Woods’ round ended several hours prior, before the national TV broadcast had even begun. Still, that didn’t stop one fan from screaming out during the ceremony, “Where’s Tiger?”
The yell sounded like it originated from the same place, and the voice sounded remarkably similar, to one that screamed something diametrically opposed at the conclusion of Woods’ final round: “You’re the greatest of all time.”