In a week all about Tiger Woods, his disciple earned a fitting win
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
BRADENTON, Fla. — On Sunday in Florida, many of the best golfers in the world dressed up in red shirts and black pants, a nod to this generation’s greatest golfer, who lay in a hospital bed in California. Tour pros very rarely wear red and black. For one thing, it’s a tough combo to pull off. More importantly, those are Tiger Woods’ colors.
Nothing that happened on the golf course could meaningfully change Woods’ health post-car accident, and Woods was thousands of miles away during the conclusion of the WGC-Workday. But his presence was felt everywhere — including the leaderboard.
There are plenty of PGA Tour players within a few years of Woods’ age who are still competitive on the PGA Tour, but none of them were in the mix at Concession Golf Club. Instead, the day’s list of contenders was fittingly comprised of players inspired by what Woods brought to the game — and who have borrowed little pieces of his greatness along the way.
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Tony Finau, whose eagle at No. 7 vaulted him onto the first page of the Sunday’s leaderboard, will tell you that the 1997 Masters changed his life. He’ll remind you the power of seeing a golfer of color win on golf’s greatest stage. And if the two have something in common, it’s a borderline mythical level of talent (“he drove it where?”) that leaves playing partners in awe.
“He definitely changed the course of my life, my career,” Finau said earlier in the week. “I think I’m one of hundreds of guys out here that would say the same thing.”
Nobody since Tiger Woods has come close to being “the next Tiger Woods.” But of all the pros promised as Woods’ heir-apparent, Rory McIlroy has come the closest. He came to Concession with what he described as “not my best stuff” and fought a two-way miss to a T6 finish. Woods can relate to that. McIlroy, whose childhood adoration of Woods has been well-documented, put it simply after his round:
“If there was no Tiger Woods, I just think the Tour — and the game of golf in general — would be in a worse place.”
Patrick Reed has demonstrated Woods’ unparalleled ability to channel would-be distractions into on-course rocket fuel. Conventional wisdom tells us that golf is best played with a clear mind, but Reed thrives under what most golfers would consider hostile circumstances. It was particularly surreal seeing Reed in the same uniform as playing partner — and Ryder Cup rival — Rory McIlroy. But of all the competitors in the field, Reed must have felt most comfortable in red and black. That’s what he always used to wear on Sundays in honor of his boyhood hero.
Scottie Scheffler was in Woods’ group in the final round of the 2020 Masters, which means he bore witness to the 15-time major champion making 10 on the 12th hole. He also bore witness to Woods making birdie at five of the six holes that followed, a testament to not giving up. Scheffler wore a red, baggy Nike polo on Sunday en route to a fifth-place finish. It hung off him the way Woods’ shirts hung off him when he was 24, the age that Scheffler is now.
A trio of golfers shared second. There was Viktor Hovland, for whom memories of Woods conjure up memories of school. “I just remember sitting in the classroom and we would have our computers up and I would just be on YouTube all day watching his highlights,” Hovland says. The way Hovland rebounded after a quadruple-bogey 8 on his final hole Friday would make any grinder proud.
When Billy Horschel turned pro in 2009, Woods gave him a spot into his tournament at Congressional. “Since that day he’s always been gracious to me,” Horschel said — then got to the simple truth. “I’m just happy he’s still here on this planet.”
Brooks Koepka shares Woods’ disdain for losing in any form. Asked if his T2 provided any sort of confidence boost going forward, Koepka rejected the premise of the question. “I mean, I lost,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you finish second or in last, you didn’t win.” You’ll recall a young Tiger Woods saying something similar. “It’s like I always explain to my dad: Second sucks and third’s even worse,” he told Curtis Strange upon turning pro.
It’s worth noting that Koepka was the only Nike golfer who didn’t wear red on Sunday. That’s not criticism. Really, it’s not. Instead it’s recognition of the fact that Koepka calls his own shots, and in this case made the sort of decision Woods might have earlier in his career. After all, in 2000, when a group of 40 players assembled to honor the late Payne Stewart on Wednesday of the U.S. Open by hitting balls in the Pacific, Woods skipped the ceremony to tee off for his final practice round.
As appropriate as it was that the tournament’s also-rans were Woods disciples, it was even more fitting that Collin Morikawa, a golfer made in Woods’ image, took home the title. Morikawa, like Woods, is a Southern California kid with a relentless work ethic and the ability to hit his irons better than arguably anyone else on the planet. The reason they’re so often compared is because Morikawa may in fact be the game’s best irons player since the man he grew up emulating.
On Sunday, Morikawa was hoping to wear red and black to honor his boyhood idol — but the shirt he’d been sent got stuck in Memphis.
“We got the tracking number and I was checking it last night, I was checking it this morning,” Morikawa said. “My agent said even though the shirt wasn’t there, go out and play like Tiger would with the lead. I think I did.”
Morikawa’s play with the lead was distinctly Tiger-like, but not for the reasons you might think. The myth of Woods involves Sunday heroics, fist-pumping big putts and birdieing his opponents into oblivion. But what he’s done far more often is sucked the air out of a tournament by grabbing hold of the lead and then playing smart, controlled golf all the way to the clubhouse while his foes crumbled around him.
Morikawa began Sunday with a two-stroke lead, which quickly vanished when he bogeyed No. 2 and parred the gettable par-5 third. But that was the last time he looked remotely fallible. Morikawa hit an approach to six feet at No. 5 for birdie. He navigated a delicate up-and-down at No. 7 for another. He stuck another wedge shot inside 10 feet to a precarious pin at No. 9. And he opened his lead to three with a door-slamming birdie putt at No. 12.
No lead is safe at Concession, which lived up to its birdies-and-big-numbers reputation all week. But you’d hardly have known it as he navigated the finishing stretch. He found every fairway. He played to the middle of the green. He parred the rest of the field to death. There was an inevitability to Morikawa’s victory that only happens when the game’s great players are in complete control. Closing isn’t necessarily a skill Morikawa learned from Woods — but he has it somehow, that X-factor that allows him to slam the door when it counts.
Justin Thomas, the golfer on Tour with whom Woods plays most often, offered a reminder after his round that the red and black wasn’t just a celebration of Woods. It was a very real show of solidarity for Tiger the human being.
“Obviously there’s nothing we can do to help him, but I think it’s important for him to feel some kind of support,” he said.
The message found its mark. Woods tweeted out an uncharacteristically emotional message from his account shortly after the tournament wrapped. “It is hard to explain how touching today was when I turned on the TV and saw all the red shirts,” he wrote. “To every golfer and every fan, you are truly helping me get through this tough time.”
Kids have dressed like Woods for decades, hoping to emulate the style of the game’s most iconic golfer. But on Sunday, a day when Woods’ peers were the ones dressed like him, Collin Morikawa executed the most touching tribute of all: He played golf like Woods.
He’s got the trophy to prove it.