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For once, second didn’t stink for Tiger

For once, second didn’t stink for Tiger

ST. LOUIS — Even without the victory, Tiger Woods delivered the victory fist pump on the 72nd hole. It was a hard right too, a punch packed with the kind of mean intentions thrown by an old heavyweight from St. Louis by the name of Sonny Liston. Tiger Woods finally said the hell with it Sunday, the hell with an entire career spent hating on second place.

Woods was going to celebrate a loss for once in his glorious sporting life. He made that 19-foot birdie putt that he knew in his heart wouldn’t topple Brooks Koepka, and then Tiger responded at Bellerive as if he had just won his fifth green jacket at Augusta National.

Woods went crazy. The crowd went crazy.

“I could hear it,” a smiling Koepka said as he approached the waiting Woods near the PGA Championship scoring room.

Heck, they could hear it a dozen zip codes away in any direction. The 14-time major winner gave the three-time major winner a healthy hug, and soon enough, Woods left the premises feeling happier about losing than he has ever felt in his life.

At a surgically altered and emotionally scarred 42 years of age, three weeks after nearly winning The Open at Carnoustie, Woods shot a 64, his best score ever in the final round of a major. His 130 over the closing 36 holes only set a PGA Championship record. He finished at 14-under, two strokes behind Koepka, and the shame of it is he might’ve lost the tournament on his first two holes Thursday, when he opened with bogey and double-bogey before ducking into a portable toilet and exchanging his sweat-soaked shirt for what appeared to be a superhero’s cape.

On some levels, this has been Tiger’s most remarkable season yet. He hasn’t added to his 79 tour victories, but who cares? He was a hopelessly broken man and athlete a little more than a year ago. After a decadelong majors drought, he nearly won The Open and the PGA back to back. Woods didn’t just produce heart-stopping drama for millions of fans praying for his comeback to take us all to an unimaginable place.

He might’ve just produced the most dramatic non-championship sports season since the 2007 New England Patriots lost their bid for perfection in Super Bowl XLII.

“Oh God,” Woods said Sunday evening, “I didn’t even know if I was going to play golf again.”

Woods was ranked 1,199th in the world in December for a reason. He was asked what he would’ve said or thought in the early winter if someone told him he would have very good Sunday chances this season in two majors.

Tiger started rattling on about his schedule and not knowing how many tournaments he would enter before he caught himself and faced the sobering magnitude of the question.

“And so at the beginning of the year,” Woods finally said, “if you would say, yeah, I would have a legit chance to win the last two major championships, I — with what swing? I didn’t have a swing at the time. I had no speed. I didn’t have a golf swing. I didn’t have — my short game wasn’t quite there yet. My putting was OK. But God, I hadn’t played in two years. So it’s been a hell of a process, for sure.”

Woods trusted the process, of course, even as he needed to towel off between shots Sunday more than his buddy, Rafa Nadal, towels off between points. Dressed in his killer red, Woods opened with a great bunker shot and near-birdie at the first, a birdie at the second and a near-hole-in-one-turned-birdie at the third. Tiger missed all seven fairways on the front nine and it didn’t much matter. He was making his bid with the most lethal weapon in his bag — his indomitable will to win.

Off a downhill lie near a cart path, Woods whistled a 3-wood through a tree en route to a birdie at the par-5 eighth. Then — after another shirt change in another portable toilet — he executed his shot of the tournament on his approach at the par-4 ninth, salvaging his wide-left tee ball with a throwback nine-iron from the tree line that netted him another birdie and a score of 11-under. Woods screamed a profanity for punctuation, and why not? He trailed Koepka by one.

Tiger’s Bridgestone ball stopped on the lip of the cup at the 11th, refusing to fall like his Nike ball fell at the 16th at Augusta in 2005, leaving him doubled over, his hands on his knees. But with the Goodyear blimp hovering above him, Woods had his magical moments on the back side, birdieing Nos. 12 and 13 as crowds in other corners of Bellerive — watching the leaderboards and video boards — erupted into chants of, “Let’s go Tiger.” Woods followed a damaging bogey at the 14th, where he missed the fairway with an iron, by nearly holing out his approach at the 15th. His tap-in birdie again put him one stroke off the lead.

But as Koepka played in the final pairing with Adam Scott, Koepka kept flexing those muscles of his and showed why he’s now the best majors player on the planet. At the par-5 17th, before Woods could manage an only up-and-down par out of a bunker, the same crowd that had chanted “Let’s go Tiger” suddenly groaned when they saw Koepka’s score had changed to 16-under on the nearby board. At 13-under, Woods was effectively done. All he had left was that birdie on 18 — and a chance to thank a crowd so large and passionate and positive all week that it moved Tiger in a way that few crowds ever have.

“The energy was incredible,” Woods said.

Tiger turned the PGA Championship into a Game 7 at Busch Stadium.

“Sixty-four,” said the contender paired with him, Gary Woodland. “And it looked pretty easy to be honest with you.. … I think he could’ve shot a lot [better] than he did.”

Before he returns to the Masters as one of the favorites — the early odds have him 12-1, behind only Jordan Spieth at 10-1 — Woods has to regain trust in his driver. That was the clear difference between winning and losing here. Koepka could let it rip, with full confidence, while Woods was trying to avoid the big stick like the plague.

“It’s tough to beat when the guy hits it 340 down the middle,” Woods said.

The more Tiger raved about Koepka’s power game, the more it sounded like he was raving about a young Tiger. But this wasn’t a day for regrets — or for wishing for a return to the good ol’ days of dominance, when Woods’ opponents folded on command.

This was a day to remember that Woods had spinal fusion surgery 16 months ago, the pain soon compelling him to overmedicate and to get himself arrested, while in a dangerous stupor, for DUI. This was a day to remember that Tiger didn’t even know if he’d ever compete again as recently as last fall, and that he’d said in the spring he was recovering from “some really dark, dark times.”

He’d been bedridden, unable to go out to dinner, unable to play with his kids. He called himself a “walking miracle” even before he woke up the echoes and thrilled the fans at Carnoustie and Bellerive.

“I’m in uncharted territory,” Woods said, “because no one’s ever had a fused spine hitting it like I’m hitting it. So I had to kind of figure this out on my own, and it’s been really hard. It’s a lot harder than people think.”

Woods has five top-10s and seven top-12s in 14 starts this year. He just posted his best losing score, 14-under, in a major. He could very easily have 16 major titles right now — and that’s OK. In the end, Tiger Woods didn’t really need any more trophies.

One of the greatest athletes in modern American history won Sunday just by showing up. For the first time, the man who hates second place positively basked in it, then waited to give the champion a hug. Yes, it was a pretty damn special thing to see.

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