You’d be forgiven for thinking that the PGA Championship ended at 5:40 p.m. CT on Sunday. At that time, the enthusiastic Bellerive crowd erupted as the red-clad man standing on the 18th green rolled in a birdie putt, pumped his fist, shook his competitor’s hand, and walked off the course.
In reality, there were still two groups left to play, including eventual winner Brooks Koepka’s pairing, but as Tiger Woods exited the green and walked along the man-made bridge leading to the scorer’s table, all eyes followed.
Tiger's view from the bridge pic.twitter.com/yev14ZfTDA— Born Salty (@cjzero) August 12, 2018
That moment was indicative of the tone of the entire tournament, and every tournament Woods has played in since he returned to competitive golf in November. It was basically the distracted-boyfriend meme come to life—crowds of fans, media, and photographers chasing after Woods and his round of 64 while Koepka, who came into the day as the 54-hole leader, gave another unwavering performance that earned him his third major victory overall and second of the year. All weekend, Koepka was touted as the overlooked champion, the forgotten name that nobody considered a star, and it was easy to think of him like that throughout the day. But Koepka taking on Tiger felt appropriate in many ways—maybe not in terms of Q score, but of the places both golfers are at in their respective careers.
Koepka has found his rhythm. Not only is he absolutely blasting the ball off the tee, the skill that made him a name-to-know at Erin Hills last year and helped earn him his first major, but he’s also refined the other areas of his game. His play is like a suit of armor—there are no real weaknesses, no flaws to exploit or nerves to unravel. He was one of the few competitors at Bellerive that seemed unbothered by the Tiger Roars that were echoing around the course, and even as Woods got within one shot of the lead on the back nine, Koepka did not crumble. Instead, he buckled down further and made back-to-back birdie putts on 15 and 16 to put his lead out of reach.
Tiger used to have armor of his own. It won him 14 major championships, helped him attain countless endorsements, and endeared him to millions of people around the world who couldn’t believe one person could be so completely dominant in their field. Then came the surgeries, and the personal problems, and the uncertainty surrounding his future. Just under a year ago, as he was recovering from his fourth back surgery, Woods told the press at the Presidents Cup that he wasn’t sure whether he would ever play golf again. It was a surprising bit of honesty and vulnerability from Woods, one that we weren’t used to seeing from him in the past.
Now, 11 months later, he’s back playing, and playing well—he finished in second place at the PGA Championship, his best major performance since the 2009 PGA. But his armor looks to be largely gone, replaced instead by a showing of pure will. His game may not be perfect anymore, but he’s fighting for it. He slammed his club down multiple times in the final round after errant tee shots, pumped his fist after every solid putt, and dug himself out of nearly every hole that his driver misses got him into. Heart was the name of his game on Sunday, and though Tiger as the emotion-filled underdog is a new role for him, it felt appropriate. Especially since Koepka seems to be gunning for Tiger’s old mantle.
At 28 years old, Koepka hasn’t been playing on the PGA Tour for long. He started his pro career in Europe and didn’t cross over to a fuller PGA circuit until 2014. His success hasn’t been immediate—before winning the 2017 U.S. Open, he’d won just one tournament on tour—but in his last 13 major appearances dating back to the 2015 U.S. Open, he’s recorded 12 top-25 finishes, including three wins and seven top-10s. And his run is only beginning. On Sunday, Koepka proved that he’s a viable major champion, not someone who happened to win a couple of U.S. Opens because he could manhandle the courses. He held off competitors that have a combined 18 major championships between them, and he did so in near-flawless fashion.
Koepka battling Woods felt like a glimpse into golf’s future as much as a nostalgic throwback to the past. When Woods was in the lead on Sunday in a major during his prime, he was invincible. And while Koepka isn’t at that level, this was his second-straight major that he closed out when leading or being tied for the lead after 54 holes. One CBS announcer called Koepka a “human bulldozer” on the back nine as he stormed down fairways and was unbothered by delays in play; his surging playing partner, Adam Scott; or Tiger posting a minus-14 score ahead of him. This tournament was his to lose, and he embraced that edict instead of being afraid of it.
Though Woods and Koepka are entering different eras of their career—Tiger, potentially his twilight with a few more highlights thrown in, and Brooks just starting to fully establish himself on tour—they both came into Sunday’s round with a lot to prove. Woods showed that even with a fused back and a new attitude on the course, he could be competitive in a major tournament, and Koepka showed that he will be a force for many years to come. And though only one could win the tournament, golf fans may look back on their showdown years from now as something much more meaningful than just another PGA Championship.