AUGUSTA, Ga. — When Tiger Woods walked to the 12th tee Sunday afternoon at Augusta National Golf Club, he trailed Francesco Molinari, the “Is he breathing?” Italian, by two shots. Woods, a four-time Masters champion, had been steady to that point. But steady was not going to catch the unwavering Molinari, who had played 65 holes at the Masters and made just two bogeys.
The wind swirled at the 12th hole, just 155 yards. The first few drops of rain spit down on the course. Molinari, playing first, pulled an 8-iron, which he wanted to knock down a bit. It was a swing that would make the Masters more likely his — or a swing that would produce a Masters-changing mistake.
“If it’s one yard further left . . .” Molinari said afterward, ruefully.
Augusta’s 12th hole is called “Golden Bell,” but it might as well be called “If it’s one yard further [insert desired direction here],” because it’s more finicky than a vegan toddler. Sunday’s Masters turned right there. Molinari never slipped on a green jacket because his tee shot hit the bank above Rae’s Creek, then bounced back in. Woods is a Masters champ for a fifth time in large part because he followed Molinari’s miscue by finding the middle of the green with a smart, smooth 9-iron.
“The mistake Francesco made there let a lot of guys back into the tournament,” Woods said, “myself included.”
It may be odd to draw momentum from the error of another, but that’s what happened for Woods after not only Molinari but the third man in the final group, Tony Finau, also found the water. That also was the fate of Brooks Koepka and Ian Poulter, playing in the group ahead, who arrived at the 12th as contenders and left playing catch-up.
So the divergent paths were established then: Woods headed left, over the Hogan bridge, to mark his ball on the green before two-putting for par. Molinari and Finau headed right, to the drop area, where they hit pitch shots that led to crippling double bogeys.
Woods’s victory — his 15th major championship — was held together by a few key moments. When he three-putted the fifth — a hole he bogeyed all four days — he trailed Molinari by three and had made back-to-back bogeys. He had a conversation with his caddie, Joe LaCava.
“He was saying some things that I can’t really repeat here,” Woods said.
Woods’s response: Head to the restroom and continue the tongue-lashing on himself.
“Came out,” he said, “and I felt a lot better.”
So he began playing better. His 8-iron approach at No. 7 was just outside tap-in range, and it came at another key moment — when Molinari was making his first bogey in 50 holes. The three-shot lead was back down to one. But it wasn’t just Woods who was in it. Patrick Cantlay would use an eagle at 15 to get to 12 under. Xander Schauffele birdied 11, 13 and 14 to get to 12 under, too.
“All of a sudden, the leader board flipped,” Woods said, “and there were a bunch of guys up there who had a chance to win.”
Woods’s steadying par at 12, though, was an indication that he would not be the one to flip out. He would leave that to others. This was his 22nd Masters. Molinari, Koepka and Finau have combined for 14. He knows where to miss it. He knows where to go for it. He knows the mentality. He knows how to execute.
“I just said, ‘Just keep plodding along,’ ” Woods said.
Plodding, it’s so un-Masters-like. But in a way, that’s what he did. His birdies at the two par-5s on the back side — Nos. 13 and 15 — were the most rote Augusta can provide, routine two-putts that never threatened to be eagles but were never in danger of being damaging pars, either.
Woods’s mundane 15th contrasted with Molinari’s wild ride there and provided one final turn. The Italian had to lay up short of the water that guards the green in front, and he approached the pin from the left side. With Woods in position to birdie, Molinari forced the issue.
“I probably should have gone [to the] middle of the green,” Molinari said, “and just wait for the last three holes to try to make something happen there.”
Instead, he went at the pin, tucked left. His pitch hit a branch and deflected directly into the water, yielding his second double bogey in four holes.
The only threats that remained, then, were Dustin Johnson, who birdied 17 to get to 12 under, and Koepka, who responded to his dunked ball at 12 with an eagle at 13. But then Woods stepped to the 16th tee and pulled an 8-iron. It scared the hole. It got him to 14 under. The roar resonated.
“It’s a good shot that basically won him the tournament right there,” Koepka said.
Koepka, who beat Woods at last summer’s PGA Championship, was on the 18th green when Woods found the fairway with his tee shot on the last. Koepka had a downhill putt on a rebuilt green for birdie to get to 13 under, to put pressure on Woods. He had just seen Poulter hit the same putt and watched it stay straight.
“Just tried to play it straight and firm,” Koepka said, “and mine decided to break.”
No closing birdie. No pressure on Woods. And that allowed him to conservatively lash his ball — which was hindered by a lump of mud on its side — short and right of the green. It allowed him to pitch it up behind the pin and two-putt for all that was necessary: a bogey, and a win.
“I can win majors now,” Woods said, and it’s true. For all the reminiscing and revived feelings Woods’s victory will bring, for all it proves to himself about what he’s capable of at 43, the Masters can be surprisingly simple to figure out: Come to the 12th and leave your ball dry, and your chances improve exponentially.