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Did Tiger lose the 2018 US PGA Championship on Saturday?

by Simon Bale

With 14 major titles Tiger Woods is is not yet done chasing his career dream of matching Jack Nicklaus’s tally of 18 – but history tells us that in order to win he needs to be in the final pairing on Sunday…

August 23, 2018

Much has been said and written about Tiger Woods' sensational return to top-elite golf after multiple back surgeries that threatened to end his career. Moving and swinging the club as freely as ever, the 42 year-old appeared a man reborn as he pegged it up this summer in search of his 15th major title, thrillingly at Carnoustie and more dramatically still at Bellerive for the 100th staging of the USPGA Championship. With a third-round 66 over the scorched links of Carnoustie, Woods produced one of the truly great rounds of his career in a performance that contained more than the occasional glimpse of the shot-making brilliance that defines his legend (he would eventually tie 6th in his first Open since 2013); at Bellerive, two shots behind leader Brooks Koepka heading into the final 36, Tiger would shoot his lowest ever final round in a major, a six under par 64, while a weekend total of 130 was another personal record.

And yet it wasn't enough.

The 147th Open Championship
Golf - The 147th Open Championship - Carnoustie, Britain - July 22, 2018 Tiger Woods of the U.S. reacts during the final round REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff

Expert analysis points to the strength of the top players in the game today and the fact that a whole generation of stars have simply never experienced the ‘Tiger Factor' on Sunday – and there's no denying that. But history offers an intriguing – and indeed compelling – perspective on circumstances which might well have played a part in Koepka's triumph on that fateful Sunday in St Louis, suggesting the championship was, in fact, won on the Saturday. As many readers will know, one of the most interesting stats in Tiger's playing biography is that he has never won a major championship from behind – in every single one of the 14 majors he has accumulated he led going into the last round and played in the final pairing on Sunday (the only blip in this record being the sensational loss he suffered at the hands of Y.E Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship, where Yang became the first Asian-born winner of a major title, out-gunning Tiger 70-75 at Hazeltine).

Tiger's ability to intimidate and discomfort his closest rivals in the last-day pairing of a major is the stuff of legend – the whole dynamic of the ‘back nine on Sunday' changes in his company as galleries swell and all the relevant pressure levels get cranked to 11. At Bellerive Tiger was denied that advantage. A 2.35pm tee-time alongside Gary Woodland took the majority of the crowd, deflecting the attention away from the leader Koepka and playing partner Adam Scott. Sure, the roars were deafening as the tournament headed into the home stretch – the unmistakeable atmosphere that surrounds a charging Tiger Woods – but the noise echoed from two groups ahead. The fans only had eyes for Tiger, leaving a comparatively sparse following for Scott and Koepka. One can only imagine the difference in pressure and intensity had woods been paired with the back-to-back US Open champion. It's all hypothetical now, of course, but I'd hazard a guess that what at the time felt like a minor blip when Koepka bogeyed both the 8th and 9th hole – cutting his lead to just one stroke – would have felt like the end of the world had Tiger's army of frenzied fans been there to pile on the pressure.

Whether or not Tiger will ever break the apparent destiny of winning only when in the last pairing on Sunday only time will tell. It took a man of Koepka's class and resilience to deny a resurgent Tiger his 15th major title – and such is the strength and depth of golf at the highest level that intimidation factor is not the weapon it once was. Now the proud owner of three major titles, Brooks Koepka is certain to be the PGA's Player of the Year and will no doubt prove a potent member of Davis Love's US Ryder Cup team. But when it comes to bringing a tournament to life, electrifying players and fans alike, there's no one quite like Tiger. And he will be fascinating to watch on all three days of the action in Paris – not just Sunday.