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The Open: This feels like a final farewell for teary-eyed Tiger Woods after his exit

It was the tip of the cap that did it. Nothing too showy, or dramatic. Tiger Woods would not have wanted that. Instead, as he walked towards the 18th green, Rory McIlroy gripped the peak of his blue cap and gave it the merest tug of acknowledgment.

Chapeau, as the French would say. And then the tears started. Woods had kept it together over Swilcan Bridge, where the greats and sometimes just the good often pause for one last look. He even kept it together during what must have seemed an endless wait on the 18th tee, when he chose to think about his next shot of him, rather than what was soon going to be his last one of him.

Yet McIlroy’s little gesture of simple respect? That brought home where Woods was going and what he would miss. That made flesh the respect he commands from his contemporaries of him. That started the waterworks. The stage, the crowd, it was all perfect for Woods. This is his favorite golf course, the home of the sport no less, and the 18th green feels like it resides in the heart of town.

Tiger Woods tipping his cap to fans at The Open felt like a farewell for him at St Andrews

Many of those trying to get a last look, capture a final image of the man who changed modern golf, were shut outside the course itself by large metal barriers. Still they competed for a view of that one man. Around the 18th, giant signs read ‘Everything has led to this’.

It refers to the occasion of the 150th Open, but it applies just as much to Woods. The genius, the downfall, the comeback, the terrible luck, the self-inflicted wounds, everything has led to this, what will almost certainly be his final appearance of him in an Open at St Andrews, at just 46.

Woods is younger than Phil Mickelson was when he won his last major, younger than Ernie Els who made a brief appearance on the leaderboard on Thursday, a forty-something contemporary of Sergio Garcia who shot 66, a few years older than Darren Clarke when he won the Open in 2011.

Yet he is done. Maybe not with the Open, or with the majors, but he spoke as if it is over, here. The next Open at St Andrews is not yet in the diary, venues are booked until 2025 with 2027 considered to be the first possible return to this corner of Fife, 2030 more likely.

It all seemed perfect for Woods as attendees tried to get a last look and capture a final image of the man who changed modern golf

It all seemed perfect for Woods as attendees tried to get a last look and capture a final image of the man who changed modern golf

Woods is defiant but not delusional. He doesn’t know whether he will be in any fit state to play competitively by then and one gets the feeling a ceremonial role will not appeal to him. But it’s hard. Jack Nicklaus always insisted he never wanted to be a ceremonial golfer, either, but as a man gets older that is the role assigned to him. Nicklaus may have felt in his bones from him that he could still give it a go, but those who followed him did so always believing this might be the last dance.

So it was for Woods. From early on in the round, when the birdies would not come, it became obvious that he would not be completing rounds three and four. And as he neared journey’s end so the gallery grew and the encouragements became ever louder and warmer. Not just from paying customers, either.

At course-side hotels and hospitality facilities, there were lawns of workers in name tags, chefs still wearing their aprons, policemen, security, all welcoming him home. ‘Would you look at that,’ a marshal remarked at the 16th green. ‘We’ve had one official rules with us all the way to here. Now we’ve got two.’

The media scrum was the size of that following the winner home on Sunday evening. This for a man nine over par going up the last. It was a curious mixture of the sentimental and realistic. As another putting opportunity slipped by on the 17th, a cry of ‘unlucky, Tiger’ was undercut by a truthful, ‘Ach, he’s putted s**te all afternoon’.

The next Open at St Andrews is not yet in the diary, and might not happen again until 2030

The next Open at St Andrews is not yet in the diary, and might not happen again until 2030

This was confirmed on the last when Woods missed a tiddler for birdie. That aside, it was a perfect scene. Bagpipes could be heard in the background, seagulls glided overhead, the crowd were appreciative yet respectful, Justin Thomas, like McIlroy, made a gesture of acknowledgment as he teed off down the first.

To their credit, the R&A had planned this. Woods and McIlroy’s tee times were mirrored in the hope they would pass in a symbolic moment, perfect for the television cameras. Somehow they got their wish. It was choreographed to perfection.

Maybe too perfect. Woods would have required a heart of stone to avoid the emotion of the occasion, and he’s not like that any more. ‘I’m not one who gets teary-eyed very often about anything,’ he said.

‘But when it comes to the game and the passing on of, just the transition really, I had a few tears.

He was teary-eyed after exiting the stage - he knows he risks becoming a ceremonial golfer

He was teary-eyed after exiting the stage – he knows he risks becoming a ceremonial golfer

‘As I walked further along the fairway, I saw Rory. He gave me the tip of the cap. It was pretty cool, the nods I was getting from guys as they were going out and I was coming in, just the respect.

‘And then as I got more into the hole, the ovation got louder and you could feel the warmth and you could feel the people from both sides. It felt like the whole tournament was right there. And they all appreciated what I’ve done here, all my times I’ve enjoyed in Scotland, I felt like it just came to a head right there as I was walking to my golf ball.

I was lucky enough in 1995 to watch Arnold Palmer hit his first tee shot in the second round as I was going to the range. And I could hear Jack playing his last one of him and those ovations got louder and louder and louder.

‘I felt that as I was coming in. The people knew that I wasn’t going to make the cut. But I’ve always respected this event. I’ve always respected the traditions of the game. I put my heart and soul into this over the years. And I think the people appreciated that.’

Woods didn’t remove. I just didn’t speculate on the future. Even now, nine over, he still makes it look easier than it is, because he would be crying out with the pain if he showed the reality of his predicament. That’s why questions about whether he might play more next year, to prepare better for the majors, meet polite rebuttals.

The genius, the downfall, the comeback, the terrible luck, the self-inflicted wounds - everything has led to this

The genius, the downfall, the comeback, the terrible luck, the self-inflicted wounds – everything has led to this

‘I understand being more battle hardened, but it’s hard just to walk and play 18 holes,’ he said, with greater patience than was truly deserved. ‘But people have no idea what I have to go through and the hours of work on the body, pre and post, each and every single day, just to do what I did. People don’t see. And then you think about playing more events on top of that. It’s hard enough just doing this.’

We forget that before his last restructuring there were doubts he’d even be able to play pitch and putt with his children. Now, it is to be hoped, he has fun, even if he returns to St Andrews as a humble member, not the star of the show. He spoke of coming over Swilcan Bridge, maybe for the last time as a professional.

‘And that’s when I started to realize, hey, the next time it comes here I might not be around,’ said Woods, his eyes still red from that recognition. ‘I have nothing planned. Zero. Nothing in the near future. This is it.

‘I’m sure my son will probably want me to come back here and play and I was fortunate enough to get honorary membership from the R&A. I have my locker here when you walk in on the left. It means I’m able to get a tee time, too. So that could happen.’

It surely will. So it’s not quite over. But this part, this final valediction, probably is.

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