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When Tiger Woods is on the prowl at a major championship, it's a force of nature

Tiger Woods celebrates after making a birdie putt

Tiger Woods celebrates after making a birdie putt on the 18th green during the final round of the PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club on Sunday in St. Louis. Credit: AP / Brynn Anderson

ST. LOUIS — Take it from the little 7-year-old who felt the course shake when he was there to see Tiger Woods win the 2000 PGA Championship and take it from the defending champion who felt the same vibrations when Woods nearly won the 2018 PGA on Sunday (it’s the same guy, by the way).

“You could hear the roars from different parts of the golf course. It’s pretty apparent what a Tiger roar is versus anybody else’s,” Justin Thomas told a reporter who was there both times, too. “You guys have seen it for a while. He moves the needle.”

The needle moved, spun and just about fell off its axis Sunday with Woods setting the championship on its ear. He didn’t win, but he closed within one stroke of champion Brooks Koepka on the back nine, inspiring a wave of energy and riding it. Little more than a year after Woods had told people that his back was so bad that he could barely walk and probably never would play golf again, he showed that his back is fine and his competitive heart is even better.

“I’m amazed that I have gotten this far. Nobody around me, my surgeon, the people who work on my body, had foreseen this taking place. I just feel very fortunate to do what I’ve done,” said Woods, more philosophical and much more humble than he was in 2000, when he did what Koepka did on Sunday — win a PGA Championship two months after winning the U.S. Open.

Thomas was at Valhalla 18 years ago because it was near his Kentucky home and because his dad was a former officer in a PGA of America chapter. Justin was so taken with Tigermania that, after he won the Wanamaker Trophy on his own last year, he said the celebratory dinner with Woods was as exciting for him as winning the tournament.

This time, Thomas was one of the many (everyone but the champion, actually) totally eclipsed by Woods. The latter’s 6-under-par 64 was the best final round he has shot in a major, his final 54-hole total of 196 was his best in a major three-round stretch and his 266 for the week tied for the lowest ever in a PGA by a non-winner.

He moved the needle and changed the golf landscape for the foreseeable future. He is no longer a ceremonial figure or celebrity. He is a lock for the Ryder Cup team. He is a force again. And people are eating it up. No matter what they know or feel about his missteps, fans are pulling for him like crazy. Whenever he hit an approach shot close to the hole or made a putt, it was obvious to everyone on the course, no matter where they happened to be.

“He’s the reason people in my generation are playing golf,” Koepka said.

Poor Gary Woodland. The pro from Topeka, Kansas, who led after the first two rounds had hoped to make a huge charge and become a major champion for the first time, was paired with Woods and got caught in the undertow. He shot 69 and finished 10 under, but never challenged.

“It was awesome. With him contending in a major on a Sunday and making putts, the energy was unbelievable,” Woodland said. “That’s what you want. You want to be able to play with him on Sunday and beat him. Unfortunately, I didn’t do that today but I was glad I was in that spot.”

To Woodland, the guy he was playing with looked like the vintage Tiger Woods. His approach shots were mint, his putting exceptional. “He shot 64 and it looked pretty easy, to be honest with you,” Woodland said.

It was just not quite 2000 or 2002, though. The 42-year-old version of Woods could not keep it going to the finish line. An eagle on the par-5 17th could have really made noise, but he drove way right into the muck inside a hazard. The par did not help him.

Still, the whole day gave everyone involved with golf a chance to be excited, with the notable exception of two people Woods mentioned afterward. He has said all along that his great motivation is allowing his children, Sam and Charlie (at 11 and 9, both older than Thomas was 18 years ago), see him play. But the golfer insists the topic did not come up on the phone this weekend.

“They’re not really interested in it because they’re interested in starting school, and they’re nervous about starting school,” he said. “So that takes precedence over me playing a major.”

On the final day of that major championship, Woods took all of golf to school and gave it a lesson on moving the needle.

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