MEDINAH, Ill. — With a tip of his hat and a modest wave, Tiger Woods exited the BMW Championship, ending a season that delivered at once more and less than he could have envisioned when he hit his first shot of 2019 in January in San Diego.
Woods closed with an even-par 72 on Sunday at Medinah Country Club for a 72-hole total of seven-under 281 in the penultimate playoff event. He looked hale and his swing was hearty, but his game from 150 yards in was rusty from a lack of practice in recent months as he struggled to regain the physical and emotional ballast that culminated in his 15th major championship — and first in 11 years — in April at the Masters.
In 17 competitive rounds following his win at Augusta National, Woods broke 70 only three times, including Saturday at Medinah. Led by Justin Thomas, who finished 25-under for his first PGA Tour title this season and the tenth of his career, this week’s field made four-under seem like the new par.
Thomas, a major winner and former world No. 1, followed his third-round 61, a course record, with a 68 to hold off Patrick Cantlay (65) by three strokes and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama (63) by five. Woods, 43, couldn’t keep up, finishing outside the top-30 in both the tournament and the FedEx Cup standings, which means he will not advance to the Tour Championship to defend his title.
“It’s disappointing,” Woods said, adding, “Last year culminated in a pretty special moment for me and it would have been nice to go back there. But I’ll be watching the guys on TV.”
Woods has more than a casual interest in how the players perform at East Lake Golf Club, starting Thursday. He is the captain of the United States team that in December will oppose an international squad at the Presidents Cup in Australia. Several American team stalwarts failed to play their way into the event before Sunday’s cutoff for the eight automatic picks.
Who will join automatic picks Cantlay, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Matt Kuchar, Xander Schauffele, Webb Simpson and Thomas?
Those who will use East Lake’s stage as the next round of auditions before Woods announces his four discretionary picks in November include: Tony Finau, who posted a 69 on Sunday to finish alone in fourth while playing in the final grouping Sunday with Thomas and Cantlay; the reigning United States Open champion, Gary Woodland (73); the winner of last week’s first playoff event, Patrick Reed (70), and Chez Reavie (76).
No one would begrudge Woods if he elected to use one of the picks on himself and become a playing captain. But for that to happen, Woods said, he has work to do before his next start, in Japan in October. He needs to get physically stronger in certain core areas, he said, and then fine-tune his game.
Phil Mickelson, 49, who made his first United States team as a pro in 1995 and has graced every squad since, closed Sunday with a 71 and sounded resigned to seeing the streak, of which he is understandably proud, snapped.
Since February, when he collected his 44th tour title, Mickelson has missed seven cuts and finished no higher than 18th. His uneven play was on display at Medinah, where he finished five-under to finish in a group at 48th.
“I’m mentally fried and physically fried,” Mickelson said, adding, “I need a break. I’ve had a rough four, five months. Probably the worst four, five-month stretch of my career. I’m looking forward to having a couple months off and kind of regrouping.”
Mickelson almost got an early start to his off-season. He thought he might miss his tee time after the nearby resort where he was staying was struck by lightning Sunday morning. The structure caught on fire, causing the hotel to be evacuated roughly 90 minutes before his fourth round was scheduled to start.
Mickelson left his clubs and golf clothes behind when he left his room, he said. But unlike Rory McIlroy on the Sunday of the 2012 Ryder Cup, he did not require a police escort to make it to Medinah in time.
“Kind of a funny deal,” said Mickelson, who pulled into his assigned parking space 37 minutes before his tee time and changed from flip-flops to his golf shoes while still in the driver’s seat before heading to the range to hit a few drives and chips.
Woods and Mickelson were not the only American stars who left Medinah feeling deflated. For the second consecutive year, the 30-man Tour Championship field will not include Jordan Spieth, the 2015 FedEx Cup champion.
The 30th, and last, player to qualify was Jason Kokrak, who signed for a final-round 69, then waited nearly two hours to see if his 11-under score would be good enough to squeeze into the next event. Spieth, 26, closed with a 70 to finish tied for 37th, in a group that included Woods, to miss a berth to East Lake by 14 spots.
“I knew I needed something really special,” Spieth said, “and just didn’t have it.”
After regrouping, Spieth, a three-time major winner and former world No. 1, will set his sights on the Presidents Cup and what he needs to show Woods that he is worthy of being considered for one of his captain’s picks.
“I don’t necessarily feel I deserve it, but I also feel I can definitely help the team out a lot,” Spieth said.
The stirring duel down the stretch between the third-round leader, Thomas, and Cantlay, who started the day six strokes back, had to please Woods, the captain. But Woods, the competitor, exits this season with mixed feelings.
“Very special to win my 15th major and get my fifth jacket,” Woods said, adding, “The rest of the tournaments I didn’t really play as well as I wanted to.”