Tiger Woods acknowledges the crowd on the 18th hole during the final round of the PGA Championship golf tournament at Bellerive Country Club.

(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

ACKERMAN: A Sunday Afternoon Walk With Tiger

We weren’t dreaming this, Tiger Woods was chasing down a major on Sunday in St. Louis.

August 20, 2018 - 8:27 am
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ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – Tiger Woods’ errant tee shot had landed close enough to the fans they could see the dimples, near the cart path on No. 9 at Bellerive Country Club.

In the gallery, they took pictures of the ball with their phones. They waited for Tiger, who was in the contestants’ restroom near the ninth tee, changing into a dry red shirt after sweating through his old one. Eventually, the throng parted, forming a tunnel of people as the 14-time major winner surveyed the situation. A drop put the ball in the rough, 172 yards from the hole.

Woods consulted his caddy, Joe LaCava. Together, they selected a club that would propel the ball to the green. The marshals asked the crowd to step back a little more.

It was showtime on Sunday at the 100th PGA Championship.

As Woods addressed the ball, a silence fell over the crowd lining the fairway at No. 9. Back at the tee box, they waited patiently in a bottlenecked area that was held up by Woods’ bathroom break. Up ahead at the green, they spilled over the hillside, dressed in a spectrum of colors. Waiting. Not a soul moved an inch.

And then Tiger struck.

His ball took flight and appeared to be destined for the sponsored tents on the right side of the green. But instead, it turned left, drawing a beautiful arc towards the pin.

That’s when it got loud.

The fans on the cart path were already cheering, although they didn’t quite know where that ball was going to land. The packed-in patrons behind them yelled because others were yelling. Then the greenside spectators at the top of the hill let loose a roar that would make Wayne Gretzky feel right at home.

Woods, who hadn’t hit a fairway through the entire front nine, had just stuck another approach into one of Bellerive’s soft greensIt was 10-feet away, a miraculous shot that made it all finally seem real. We weren’t dreaming this: Tiger Woods was chasing down a major on Sunday in St. Louis, a city that hadn’t hosted one since 1992.

Kneeling down in front of a grandmother and her two grandsons, I motioned to one of the boys with an obstructed view to join me for a clear shot at history. He took a few steps over and his eyes widened. There was Tiger Woods in his Sunday red, not a myth… but an actual human being, standing over a birdie putt.

Woods waited for a brief moment as a player teed off on No. 1. Then he eyed it one more time, lined up his putter and rolled it… into the cup.

St. Louis approved with a thunderous reaction that startled leader Brooks Koepka, who was on the green, two groups behind Woods.

Realted story: Brooks Koepka Held Off Woods to Win PGA Championship

“It got loud,” Koepka said later that day, noting that galleries were reacting all over the course to Woods’ charge.

Koepka continued a steady, unflappable round that proved to be enough to win his second major of the year and third overall. He became the fifth golfer in history to win the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in the same season, joining Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen… and Woods himself.

Gretzky, by the way, wasn’t the only “GOAT” attending the festivities in St. Louis. None other than 23-time Olympic gold-medalist Michael Phelps followed Woods during his final round.

“Wow,” Phelps said as he passed through crowds of roped-off fans between holes. They shouted Phelps’ name and asked for pics. He obliged a few times, whenever he could. At one point, he told a fan he’d pose for a selfie after Woods and his playing partner, Gary Woodland, holed out. He did… and the patient fan smiled. Sometimes, they just wanted a quick interaction.

“Michael, I’ll give you $100 if you jump in that water,” one fan offered.

“And the fine I’d have to pay to these guys,” Phelps laughed, nodding to the uniformed state troopers following Tiger’s group.

Yes, there was an entourage behind Woods: Phelps, police, media, incoming PGA president Suzy Whaley, even Gov. Mike Parson, shaking hands and visiting with his fellow Missourians along the ropes. This was a happening.

It was the type of event you’ll remember forever, the best players in the world competing on the grounds at Mason and Ladue Roads. At one point, on No. 8 fairway on Friday, Woods was casually chatting with Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas after all three smacked their tee shots. Nineteen major championships between them, just three friends taking a stroll through Town and Country.

The siren sounded moments after that, ending the day because of a threat of storms in the area. It would be the second time rain washed out play, with Tuesday’s practice round suspended as well. But Bellerive never wavered, set up to drain well and play fair. Woods played 29 holes on Saturday to pull himself into contention. Yes, the greens were soft; however, it made for exciting action. Birdies proved to be more fan-friendly than bogeys.

And the St. Louis fans absolutely became part of the story, drawing rave reviews from Woods, Koepka and just about anyone with a Twitter account. The response from the players, who pack suitcases and travel for a living, was genuine and heartfelt.

Woods, however, was the quote machine, a catalyst for the worldwide narrative that St. Louis is a special sports town.

“They’ve been unbelievable,” Woods said on Saturday. “Not only supportive, but just so positive. They’ve been supportive of all my playing partners and myself. It’s been a pleasure to play in front of them, it really has. Hopefully we can come back soon.”

Woods didn’t stop there. He had more on Sunday.

“I wish we could play in front of crowds like this every single week,” he said after his final round. “This was a true pleasure.”

And then, from @TigerWoods on Twitter, Sunday night: “I can’t thank the fans in St. Louis enough for packing the course all week and for their enthusiasm and support. It meant so much to me.”

It could be quite a while until St. Louis lands another major. A long while.

In the meantime, would Tiger like to throw an event here? An exhibition? A celebrity pro-am?

Would the PGA Tour consider St. Louis as regular stop if it lines up the corporate dollars… and Bellerive says yes?

Maybe, maybe not. But for now, there’s one thing everyone in this proud city can agree on: St. Louis got up off the canvas and delivered a knockout victory. Television ratings were the highest in nine years. Overflow crowds – like the one Woods saluted from the player bridge after draining his final putt on No. 18 --  will remain in the minds of sports fans worldwide.

This wasn’t just a golf tournament… it was a chance for St. Louis to shine in the spotlight. Bellerive and PGA organizers did an expert job of setting up the PGA Championship to do just that.

The fans, though. They brought it home. They did it again, just like at Busch Stadium… or Enterprise Center for the Blues… or when they made the Edward Jones Dome the loudest venue in the NFL during the Rams’ Super Bowl days.

Sports unite us.

Congrats, St. Louis. You’ll feel the impact of August 6-12, 2018 for years to come.