By John Feinstein
POTOMAC, Md. — The ads for the final Quicken Loans National to be played in the shadow of Washington, D.C. summed up the PGA Tour’s last week in this area perfectly: “Come see Tiger Woods and the rest of the field.”
Unfortunately for Woods and his rabid fans, Francesco Molinari decided to make himself part of the “rest of the field,” which meant that no matter what Woods did on Sunday at the TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm, he wasn’t going to win—even against about as weak a PGA Tour field as you are likely to see.
Molinari, who will almost certainly be part of his third European Ryder Cup team come September, shot a scorching eight-under-par 62 on an equally scorching day—the heat index was over 100 degrees for most of the afternoon—to extinguish any drama and win by eight strokes over Ryan Armour, also part of the rest of the field.
Molinari’s 62 gave him a tournament record (for any of the four courses where this event was played) of 21-under-par 259 and was the lowest winning Sunday round on tour this year.
“I thought I might have a chance when I got to the turn at 10-under,” Woods said after shooting 66 on the final day to finish tied for fourth. “But the way Francesco played, I guess I’d have had to shoot 24 on the back nine.” Twenty-four would have gotten it done. In fact, 25 would have put him in a playoff. Instead, Woods shot a very human one-under-par 34 on the back nine, making a 12-foot par putt on the 18th hole that caused the CBS announcers to react as if he had won the Masters.
It was almost an hour later when Molinari and Abraham Ancer, who had started the day tied for the lead, got to the 18th green. They found a smattering of the crowd that had followed Woods waiting for them. In a field of 120 (74 players made the cut), with attendance certainly held down by the unbearable weekend heat, about 80 percent of those on property were following Woods. Another 10 to 15 percent pursued Rickie Fowler, who was in the field because of his contract with Quicken Loans. Fowler shot 67 on Sunday to finish 12th.
The “rest of the field” drew whatever fans weren’t with Woods and Fowler, and that wasn’t very many people. The few that followed the final group witnessed a bravura performance by Molinari, who took the lead early on Sunday and then ran amok at the turn, going eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie on the first five holes to remove any doubt about who the winner would be.
Of course, most of those who showed up really didn’t care who the winner would be if his name wasn’t Woods. Once again, he played well; his final round was the best score he’s shot since his return to play in 2018. It just was not enough to make any kind of serious Sunday afternoon run at the winner.
As he heads overseas to compete in next play in the Open Championship at Carnoustie, new mallet putter in tow, Woods has now played in 11 tournaments in 2018. That alone is good news for him. There have been no WDs, no limp-offs, no glutes failing to fire. He has made nine cuts—missing only in Los Angeles and at the U.S. Open—and has four top-10s, including a T-2 at Valspar. In all, he’s been in the top 12 in six tournaments out of 11 and is now 47th on the FedEx Cup points list.
There remains, however, a disturbing pattern when he gets to the weekends: Play well enough to get into contention—or at least within shouting distance of contention—and then pull up. A missed short putt here. A wayward drive there.
On Saturday, Woods was briefly within one shot of the lead after birdieing the last three holes on the front nine to get to eight under par for the tournament. But he made a mess of the back nine, shooting a one-over-par 36 that included bogeys at 13 and 18 (where he missed the fairway right all four days) and a par at the drivable par-4 14th. That dropped him to six shots behind Molinari and Ancer entering the final round, meaning he would need something very low to even have a chance. As it turned out, even if he’d broken the course record with a 61 that would only have been good for second place—five shots behind Molinari.
In all, Molinari’s sparkling round was the highlight of an otherwise overheated, dreary week. Tiger Woods Foundation officials kept insisting that the tournament wasn’t dead in Washington, that they were still searching for a sponsor to replace Quicken Loans, which is taking its $8 million annual sponsorship to Detroit next year.
Rumours have flown that the tour might give the Woods people a fall slot next year, but the chances that Woods would want to be involved with a second-tier tour event that isn’t on network TV and goes up against the NFL are between slim and none, and slim was seen headed out of town soon after Molinari accepted the tournament’s 12th and final winner’s trophy.
Another rumor that might be more believable is that Woods is planning to put on some kind of exhibition event. That would cost a sponsor far less money and could be played early in a week over one or two days. Woods could undoubtedly round up a small group of players, hand them an appearance fee and Voila! save some face. Whether he and his agent Mark Steinberg want to make that sort of effort given that the Woods Foundation now runs the Los Angeles tournament at Riviera in February and the lucrative exhibition in the Bahamas in December, remains to be seen.
Woods’ presence did give the tournament a credibility it had lacked the last two years when he was injured and couldn’t play. Of course, there were also times when Tiger-mania swallowed up all the oxygen; based on television coverage, print coverage and social media that it felt as if the “rest of the field” didn’t even exist. Most of the local print reporters were banging out their stories before Molinari even finished, since all were writing about Woods. Cars streamed out of the parking lots while Molinari played his last three holes. And despite this being the finale for the event outside the nation’s capital, corporate interest this year was so low that only 39 of the 52 Wednesday pro-am slots were filled, even though the tournament offered deep discounts in the weeks leading up to the tournament.
Four players—Armour, Ancer, Sung Kang and Bronson Burgoon—earned spots in the Open Championship by being the top finishers who hadn’t already qualified to play at Carnoustie. Burgoon locked up the last spot with a birdie at the last to edge Ryan Palmer.
Burgoon deserved special credit for his two-under-par 68 on Sunday. Paired with Woods, about the only noise he heard that was connected to him in any way was the sound of marshals yelling “please hold your places” whenever Woods holed out before he did and people began running to the next hole.
Woods stuck around for the awards ceremony, although for some reason he wasn’t allowed to present the trophy. Some corporate suit handed the trophy to Molinari. It was a fitting end to a tournament that never quite got the script right.
Soon after Woods departed. The PGA Tour or, “Tiger Woods and the rest of the field,” have now left the building.