Which way now, Tiger?
After a tie for sixth place at The Open on Sunday – when the three-time champion briefly led a major championship for the first time in a decade – the huge galleries that roared on Tiger Woods throughout the week left Carnoustie wondering whether they had seen a career rebirth after years of personal and physical struggle or the last hurrah of a fading giant.
The arguments for the latter scenario are as compelling as those for the former. Here he was, playing his first Open since 2015 when he had missed the cut at St Andrews, the scene of his first two victories in the oldest major in 2000 and 2005 and he was right back in the mix.
Woods made a solid start to the championship with two level-par rounds on a difficult though relatively benign classic links course, playing what appeared to be within himself with supremely controlled golf, finding fairways with impressive regularity.
On Saturday he took Moving Day at face value, casting off the shackles with a five-under-par 66 to move within four strokes of the 54-hole lead.
By the sixth hole of his final round, the power of that famous last-day red shirt was looking like a throwback to Woods’ pomp as two birdies in three holes moved him to seven-under, within a shot of the lead held by the slightly faltering final pairing of overnight co-leaders Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele.
Twenty minutes later, Spieth had faltered further with a double bogey at the sixth and with Schauffele bogeying the same hole, Woods was tied for the lead. Another 10 minutes on and he was the outright leader.
Let’s pause here because back in the noughties, this would have been the point when Tiger really bared his teeth. Out in front and with his claws at the throats of his rivals.
It was his modus operandi and it made him the dominant figure in golf for 12 years between 1997 and 2009. On Sunday, having been handed the lead by the misfortunes of others, his grip loosened after 20 minutes and for two holes before a double bogey at the 11th ended his challenge.
There was no way back after that and though the bogey he suffered at the 12th was cancelled out by a birdie on the par-five 14th, a third 71 of the week was not going to get the job done.
In the end, he was eclipsed by his final-round partner Francesco Molinari, whose closing 69 was the epitome of composed, nerveless, solid and winning golf at this toughest of Open courses.
Even five years ago, when Woods returned to the world number one ranking with the third of his five victories that year, that would have been unthinkable but now the great man is no longer the fearsome rival his contemporaries once feared.
Yet there will be no doubt in Woods’ mind that after four back surgeries, this performance in Scotland was an important stepping stone to major victory number 15 and beyond.
That at the age of 42 and in a really good place both mentally and physically, he is finally primed to fulfil his destiny and surpass Jack Nicklaus’s record tally of 18.
That he was, by his own description “a little ticked off at myself” because he had played well enough to give himself a chance of win number 15 there and then and had failed to close the deal.
Woods is, bar those costly errors on 11 and 12, in control and having started the year – his first full season fit and healthy since 2013 – from a world ranking position of 668th, Woods has worked way back into the top 50.
His top-six finish moved him to number 50 on Monday and that is a very heartening thing to see from one of the all-time greats.
It also allows him to scrape into the field for next week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club, a tournament at a course in Akron, Ohio, where he has won eight times.
Another strong showing there from August 2-5 and you would not rule out a serious tilt the following week at the 100th PGA Championship.