The resurgent Woods had the huge St. Louis crowd in raptures Sunday as he chased a first major title since the 2008 US Open — a feat which, given his backstory, would be regarded as one of the great sporting fairytales.
The 42-year-old, who has had four major back surgeries in recent years, fired the lowest final round in his major career (64), but ended two strokes behind the dominant Koepka.
Koepka, 28, added the US PGA Championship to the US Open title he won in June for an impressive third major title in two years. In doing so he became only the fifth player to win the two majors in in the same season, following Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Woods.
But though Koepka has enjoyed what the great Nicklaus described as “one of the best years any golfer has ever had,” it was Woods’ fist-pumping performance which dominated headlines, social media and many a conversation.
‘I want to see what Tiger’s doing’
Since before the tournament’s climax, Woods’ name was searched more on Google than Koepka’s, while even Rafael Nadal, the world’s top-ranked male tennis player, was checking the final-round score on court after his Canadian Open win, saying into the camera: “I want to see what Tiger’s doing!”
Nicklaus, the 18-time major champion, also had a few words to say on Woods.
“Tiger played great! Tiger believes he can win and came close,” Nicklaus said on Twitter.
Nicklaus wasn’t the only person tweeting about Woods, who ultimately earned his highest-placed finish at a major since the 2009 PGA at Hazeltine.
On the course itself, Woods attracted the biggest crowds and the loudest cheers as he went in pursuit of the overnight leader.
“At the beginning of the back nine I could hear all the roars,” admitted Koepka afterwards.
The drawn-out comeback
The prospect of another Woods major win has captured the sporting imagination this summer and proved gripping drama at both Carnoustie and now Bellerive.
After four back operations, including spine fusion surgery last April, it seemed sport’s first billion-dollar star was set play out the rest of his career as an also-ran after a series of faltering comebacks.
He made a tentative return at the start of the season, but as his body held up his form improved.
A second-place finish at the Valspar Championship followed by a tied fifth at Bay Hill set tongues wagging, but it was his run at the British Open — when he led with eight holes to play — that suggested he was back as a serious major contender.
‘I didn’t have a golf swing’
Woods told reporters in St. Louis it had been a “hell of a process” to get back to the upper echelons of a leaderboard.
“I didn’t know how many tournaments I would play this year or if I would even play so each tournament brought about its own challenges,” said Woods, who now has seven runners-up spots in majors compared with Nicklaus’ 19.
“I didn’t know what the number was going to be this year. I didn’t know how I was going to play.
“At the beginning of the year, if you would say, yeah, I would have a legit chance to win the last two major championships … with what swing? I didn’t have a swing at the time. I had no speed. I didn’t have a golf swing.
“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 started Sunday four shots behind Koepka, and though the four-time US PGA champion failed to hit a single fairway on the front nine, he was still three under at the turn.
“I didn’t drive well all day – I was hitting it left and right on the driving range, even with my sand wedge – so I knew it was going to be a struggle to piece together a round but I did,” added Woods.
Woods’ resurgence has lifted him into serious contention to play a dual role as player and vice captain in Jim Furyk’s US Ryder Cup team to face Europe in Paris in September.
Though Koepka’s story may not chime with a worldwide audience quite like Woods’ tale of sporting redemption, the world No.4 has had his own injury problems this year, missing April’s Masters with a wrist injury.
But victory at Bellerive means Koepka has won two thirds of the majors he has competed in this year.
“To win two majors is really incredible,” Koepka told CNN Sport.
“[To] look back where I was a couple months ago, four months ago, is incredible. I don’t think I could have dreamed of this. I don’t even have the words for it, to be honest with you.
“I’d have just taken coming back into competition and playing my way into things and just finishing out the regular season.
“I have three [majors] now. I am not going to get tired of saying I have three majors I can tell you that. but it’s crazy and hopefully I can add a few more to that list.”