That feeling is when the questions about Tiger Woods melted away and the certainties he once represented resurfaced. Almost two hours of the final round remained. It started not so much with a shot as with a decision, and it was illustrated in the ensuing walk: His two playing partners went to the right, and Woods strode to the left, separating himself again.
The walk came off the 12th tee at Augusta National Golf Club, as iconic a hole as there is in the sport. Woods arrived at the tee trailing by two shots. For so many years at so many major championships, he had created the feeling of inevitability, force-feeding the results to the rest of the field. So often in the final rounds of those major championships, the question wasn’t whether he would win, only how.
The 2019 Masters will be remembered as the conclusion of Woods’s comeback story, writ large, and rightfully so. His body had been broken so badly that during a 4½-year stretch spanning 2014 to 2018, he sat out more major championships (10) than he participated in (eight), and when he showed up he missed more cuts (five) than he made (three). His reputation had been broken by both a tawdry marital infidelity scandal and an arrest for driving under the influence.
From 1997 to 2008, Woods seemed invincible while winning 14 majors, certain to overtake Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18. In the decade thereafter, he had two kids, one divorce, four back surgeries and zero major wins. He came to Augusta last April as a 43-year-old former champion with a receding hairline, with his best chances for a fifth green jacket behind him, his daughter and son familiar with his triumphs only from archival tape.
“Prior to this comeback,” Woods said after the final round, “they only knew that golf caused me a lot of pain.”
With no Masters this week because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, it’s worth remembering that Woods’s fifth green jacket and 15th major title weren’t secured without a comeback over four days and a final round to complete the victory that will help define his career. It’s worth remembering the depths from which he came with his health, particularly with his debilitating back. It’s worth remembering that he arrived at the 12th hole trailing by two and left the green tied for the lead. And it’s worth remembering that he changed possibility to probability to that familiar inevitability not with a particular swing but with his unrivaled mind.
Reasons to believe
The Masters just oozes optimism. It has to do with the timing, just as spring is officially putting behind winter’s chill across most of the United States. It has to do with the azaleas popping, providing color after all that gray. It has to do with Jim Nantz’s “Hello, friends,” inviting and soothing. And last April, it had to do with Tiger Woods.
“I’ve seen him do things with a golf ball and perform at a level higher than anything I’ve seen in the game,” Phil Mickelson, Woods’s longtime sparring partner and a three-time Masters champ himself, said the Tuesday before the tournament. “I just would never rule him out.”
The vibes Woods engendered were based not on years-old evidence but on the previous September, when he won the Tour Championship for his first victory of any kind since 2013. His body, for once, wasn’t betraying him. Yes, it was just a 30-man field. But for someone for whom winning was once a byproduct of merely playing, doing it again after a five-year drought mattered.
Woods began his 22nd Masters just after 11 a.m. April 11, joining Haotong Li of China and Jon Rahm of Spain. He turned in precisely the kind of opening round that, in a former life, could have portended good fortune ahead: a 2-under-par 70. The final three groups of the day produced the rounds that held the lead — 66s from Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka and a 67 from Mickelson.
But Woods was much more in it than he was out of it.
“I did all the things I needed to do today to post a good number,” he said afterward.
No moment from the first two rounds stands out more than his second shot at the difficult par-4 14th on Friday. Woods had driven the ball into the trees to the left, and he had a scant window through which to play his approach. He lashed at the ball in the pine straw, and as he stepped away, a security guard slipped on the wet ground and collided with Woods’s ankle.
Woods limped, flexed the ankle and grimaced. But his response was twofold: He made the unlikely birdie putt that awaited him on the green. And afterward, when asked about the incident, he said simply: “It’s all good. Accidents happen.”
Translation: Little things won’t bother me this week. I’m back to being Tiger Woods.
By Saturday night, Francesco Molinari was the leader. He birdied four straight on the back nine. He had made just one bogey all week. His 66 left him at 13 under. Tony Finau shot a 64 to reach 11 under. And Woods, with his own 67, tied him there.
There were sentimental reasons to believe but plenty of factual ones to be skeptical. Not only was Molinari, who had beaten Woods at the British Open the previous summer, playing flawlessly, but it was well documented that each of Woods’s 14 major championships had come when he entered the final round either leading outright or tied for the lead. He had never come from behind, the very task that lay ahead.
Plus, golf had changed during Woods’s decade-long major drought. The players who had seemingly been intimidated by Woods’s mere presence had moved on. The stars who replaced them watched Woods’s greatness on TV growing up but hadn’t witnessed much of it at their expense.
“It’s not like I can only worry about him,” Molinari said that Saturday evening. “I think there’s a lot of guys with a chance.”
Memorable from the start
Many journalists have covered more Masters than I have (nine), and so many had chronicled more of Woods’s major championships than I had before last year (zero). My first major as the golf writer at The Washington Post happened to be the 2009 Masters — Woods’s first major after the 2008 U.S. Open, which until last April remained his most recent major title.
Golfers talk about learning Augusta National’s quirks over time. With 21 trips behind him, Woods knew where to miss and where not to, how every putt would break, how the breeze through a certain stand of trees would affect a ball. The same principle applies for writers: Experience brings wisdom, even in watching a round. Walk down the right side of No. 2, not the left, and don’t go all the way to the green but look down from the midpoint of the hill. Stay on the slope above the green at the par-3 sixth. And so on. There was a smart way to follow a round, just as there was a smart way to play one.
At the final round of the 2019 Masters, the Sunday flow changed — for golfers and for those who wrote about them. The previous afternoon, as the leaders worked their way around the back nine, tournament officials announced that forecasts of bad weather for later Sunday would push the end of the final round from evening to afternoon. The field would begin play from both the first and 10th tees. The final round would be contested in threesomes rather than the traditional pairs. And rather than teeing off around 3 p.m. — creating that dinnertime drama for CBS — the final group would begin at 9:20 a.m.
For a sports-watching nation, this made for adjusted viewing habits. For many of us covering the event, it fundamentally changed the experience — and the job. Although covering the Masters is my favorite sportswriting week of the year, it can feel like something of a fraudulent exercise. Two elements conspire against you: an always-looming newspaper deadline and the sprawling nature of an event in which the most significant moment could come from any player on any hole in any number of groups.
The result: For each of the previous Masters I had covered, I watched the back nine Saturday and Sunday on television from the media building. It was the only way to write a story as the tournament developed so it could be filed just as it ended, and it was the only way to keep track of everything that was going on.
But because of those threatening thunderstorms last year, as long as I could be reasonably assured the winner would come from the final group of Molinari, Finau and Woods — well, shoot, I could walk the back nine with the leaders for the first time.
The gates opened at 7:15 a.m., and the spectators poured through. The energy was different.
“Everybody wants to see Tiger Woods win more majors because he moves the needle like nobody playing golf today,” Nicklaus said on the morning of the first round. He thought back to Woods’s win at the Tour Championship, where the galleries fell in behind him as he walked up the 18th fairway to finish it off.
“I don’t think I ever saw excitement like that, even when Arnold [Palmer] was at his best,” Nicklaus said. “They knew what he had gone through and how he had struggled, and everybody likes to see a man make a great comeback.”
Successfully following Woods at the Masters is more difficult than following any other player. The galleries are invariably immense, so a successful trip involves equal parts accumulated knowledge and luck. That day, my walking companions were not only friends Michael Rosenberg and Stephanie Apstein, both of Sports Illustrated, but, thanks to the goodwill of friends with access to a ticket, my father, who came down for the weekend.
The company was good. The theater was tremendous.
Before the 12th, the top of the leader board was relatively static: Molinari with a bogey at 7 and a birdie at 8 to remain at 13 under, Woods with a tongue-lashing from his caddie after back-to-back bogeys at 4 and 5, then birdies at 7 and 8. Sort it out, and he came to the 12th even for the day, 11 under, still two back.
There is no spectator access behind Augusta’s 12th green, so the drama is viewed from a slope and grandstands behind the tee. The hole played that day at 158 yards, so the eyewitness history is from 200 or more yards off. The pin was on the right side of the shallow green. Tempting but not to be flirted with. Molinari held both the lead and the honor, so he hit first.
If the Italian had played confidently to that point, he didn’t show it either in thought or execution. He aimed toward the flag. He never had a chance. His ball took two bounces off the embankment, then trickled into Rae’s Creek.
And here’s where Woods took the most significant step toward winning the tournament, toward flipping the feel of the Masters. He took a 9-iron from his bag and didn’t think about the pin. He put his ball over the bunker, in the center of the green, more than 30 feet away: safe. But more than that: smart.
Seconds later, Finau swung. Like Molinari — as well as Koepka and Ian Poulter in the group just ahead — he found the water. And so began the revealing walk: As the top of the leader board was about to get tighter, the players themselves moved farther apart: Woods to the left over the Hogan Bridge, Molinari and Finau to the right to take their penalties and play their third shots into the green. Molinari and Finau made double bogeys. Woods made a nervy eight-footer to save par. He was tied for the lead.
From there, mayhem. The gallery around Woods’s group went from immense to unwieldy, and catching a glimpse of the important swings to come grew dodgy. I lost my father near the 14th green before Woods birdied the par-5 15th to take the outright lead. I didn’t see him again until dinner.
Even in a practice round, seeing Woods play the par-3 16th at Augusta National presents a challenge for those who hadn’t camped out there since the morning. My companions and I knew this, so we elected to watch Koepka — now just a stroke back of Woods — play 17. We ended up beneath the leader board behind the green.
The day before, Molinari had said: “With Tiger, you don’t even have to look at the leader board. You hear what’s going on, pretty much.”
First, then, was the roar that followed Woods’s tee shot, the ball that played perfectly off the slope and nearly grazed the cup, settling just outside of tap-in range. The next roar came when he made the birdie putt to get to 14 under, a two-stroke lead.
What followed, I will never forget. The operator of the manual leader board behind 17 pulled back the window in which he would insert the number that would make Woods’s birdie official for all those fans who only had heard it from afar. I will forever believe that man, that day, paused for dramatic effect and then slammed the board closed, exposing that red 14 for the waiting masses with what amounted to a fist pump of his own.
By the time Woods went to the 18th tee, still nursing that two-shot lead, there was no hope of glancing anything meaningful from the edges of the galleries. So Rosenberg and I headed to the clubhouse, to a bar area where, it turned out, everyone from Justin Thomas to Woods’s mother, Kultida, watched on television.
The emotion Woods showed on that screen — his full-body clench and arms-in-the-air celebration, then the separate hugs of his son, mother and daughter — will be played time and again this Masters-less weekend. The 2019 Masters not only enhanced Woods’s legacy but created the idea that he might further it still because his body was able again.
More than anything, though, he showed the ability to change how we all felt about an event, to seize it as his and his alone, to make the result feel inexorable even if two hours and six holes remain. That’s what Tiger Woods once provided every time he teed it up. That’s what he did that Sunday last spring, when his body finally was able to follow his mind and we all felt the way we used to.