McIlroy also believes Woods, at 42, doesn’t have the same intimidating effect on leaderboards as he once did, as Francesco Molinari proved on Sunday by claiming the Claret Jug in the same group as the former world No 1.
Bidding to claim his first major since the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines, Woods led outright as he played the tenth hole in the final round on Sunday before ending up joint sixth behind the Italian.
While not the main prize he was after, the performance earned Woods a return to the world’s top 50 and, with that, a spot in next week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, where he has won a record eight times.
Another strong display in that will put him in good fettle heading into the season’s final major, the US PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club in St Louis, Missouri, the following week.
“He’s right there. He’s getting himself in the mix,” observed McIlroy, pictured, of Woods after his third appearance in a major since returning to competitive action late last year following a fourth back procedure.
“He looked good in DC (when he finished fourth behind Molinari in the Quicken Loans Open on the PGA Tour) a couple weeks back. He’s looked good here. He’s played a full schedule. He’s healthy. I wouldn’t say we’re worried about him, but he’s one of those guys that’s always in with a shot.”
What happened at Carnoustie was similar to when Woods got himself in the mix in the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Florida in March. He’d moved to within one of the lead in an event eventually won by McIlroy before hitting his tee shot out of bounds at the par-5 16th.
On Sunday, Woods hadn’t really put a foot wrong in the closing circuit over those opening 10 holes, making birdies at the fourth and sixth, as well as equally important sand saves for pars at the eighth, ninth and tenth. His shot from a fairway trap at the latter was one of the best in the entire championship.
However, he hit a “bad 3-iron” off the 11th tee into the right rough, hit a spectator with his second as grass turned his club over and duly ran up a double-bogey 6 that effectively cost him his chance of claiming a third Claret Jug. “Even though he’s won 14, you have to learn how to get back,” said McIlroy, who tied for second with Justin Rose, Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner. “I’m re-learning. I feel like I’ve won quite a few recently, but you still have to re-learn to deal with it. Today was a good day for both of us with that, I guess.
“With the Tiger we have to face, he does things that maybe he didn’t do 10, 15 years ago. He’s not the Tiger that Phil [Mickelson] and Ernie [Els] and those had to deal with. But it’s still great to have him back. It’s still great for golf. It will be interesting to see going forward, but this was his first taste of major championship drama, I guess, for quite a while.”
Jordan Spieth concurred with McIlroy as he reflected on Woods’ tenth top-10 finish in golf’s oldest major. “This wasn’t a fluke,” insisted the Texan after losing his grip on the Claret Jug to Molinari. “I think we’ve seen that throughout the year.
“He wouldn’t tell you, but he’s human, and experiencing that kind of pressure that he would have felt leading The Open on a Sunday is no different than anybody else, especially having not experienced it for so long. He obviously has good memories to draw on, but that was something he’ll come back stronger, for sure.”
Due to those back problems, this was Woods’ first appearance in the event since 2015 at St Andrews and, though he was unable to land a win that would have been even more special due to the fact his two young kids, Sam and Charlie, it was a week he clearly enjoyed. “The fans’ support today, and all week, was amazing,” he wrote in a post on social media. “Thanks for making my return to links golf something I’ll never forget.”
Only time will tell, of course, if this was his last big chance to add another major title to his glittering CV. Next year’s Open venue, Royal Portrush, will provide a new test for Woods while he’s played only once before at Royal St George’s, the 2020 venue.
He’ll certainly have an eye on the 150th anniversary event at St Andrews in 2021, having won twice there in 2000 and 2005. “I need to try to keep it in perspective because, the beginning of the year, if they’d have said you’re playing The Open Championship, I would have said I’d be very lucky to do that,” he said in summing up his performance in Angus.
“I know that it’s going to sting for a little bit here, but given where I was to where I’m at now, I’m blessed.”