By Stephen Delaney Hale | Photos Courtesy of The Augusta Chronicle
John Boyette, for years the man with the best job in the world – sports editor of The Augusta Chronicle – asks a great question:
“What was the greatest Masters Sunday? Jack Nicklaus winning in 1986 or Tiger Woods in 2019?” Boyette recently asked the question as the new executive editor of The Aiken Standard in his hometown, a few miles away from Augusta across the Savannah River.
He covered both tournaments as a prominent golf writer. I was at both (plus 55 others so far) as a patron. That’s the fancy name the Masters Tournament gives to badge holders who make up most of the galleries.
Boyette’s answer is that there is no wrong answer, with which I agree. Whether you accept that answer or not, what Woods did last year was one of the greatest accomplishments in golf history and among the greatest comebacks in the history of sports.
Played 33 years apart, they are Sundays from different times played by dramatically different men. It’s irrelevant to say which was the greatest. That is especially true when you are alone and your mind can replay the volume and sheer joy of the roars from the galleries for both men as they claimed another Sunday in Augusta.
Nicklaus shot 65 to win by one stroke. That was a better round than Woods’ 68, and it was won by shooting his way through what might have been the toughest field of golfing greats in any tournament ever: Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Nick Price, Jay Haas and Payne Stewart, all of whom finished tied for eighth or better and all of whom had their own shot at victory. The roars for Nicklaus were the loudest and there were a few more of them, but there were roars rolling across those hills all afternoon: for Ballesteros’ eagle 3 on No. 13; like happy artillery fire for Norman’s four straight birdies on Nos. 14, 15, 16 and 17; for Kite’s eagle on No. 8 and charging birdies on 13 and 15 (he was 5-under on the four par 5s!); to Price’s back-to-back birdies on 14 and 15, which were matched by Stewart; and Haas’ five birdies, three of them in a row, on the front nine.
Several times I hollered to the people around me as we hustled to the next vantage point, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on!” Four nights later, I saw Jay Leno use the same quip in a joke in front of his late-night audience in California!
Nicklaus’ Sunday in ’86 is the standard for excitement and magic, but until then it was probably Gary Player’s Sunday in 1978. He started seven strokes behind and was still six behind after the eighth hole before making birdie on seven of the last 10 holes for a 34-30/64 – tying what was then the course record. He won by a stroke over 1977 champion Watson, Hubert Green and Rod Funseth. Earlier in his career, Player was usually a stoic figure, but by mid-round in ’78, after a birdie on the diabolical No. 12, Player was running and jumping toward the No. 13 tee, then lying on the ground, kicking the earth and beating his fists on the perfect Bermuda grass – he knew that the hand of golfing fate had chosen him that day, and so did his galleries.
Does Art Wall Jr., get a vote for greatest winning final round when he started in 13th place, six strokes back on Sunday in 1959? Wall was doing next to nothing when he made par at the treacherous No. 12, and a few groups later, leader Arnold Palmer made triple-bogey 6 on that most dangerous hole in golf. From there, Wall shot birdie, birdie, birdie, par, birdie and birdie to defeat 1955 Masters champion Cary Middlecoff by one stroke and Palmer by two. It was the first time that anyone had made birdie on Nos. 17 and 18 to win the Masters by a stroke.
Woods’ comeback in 2019 included some great golf, but the round’s greatness lay elsewhere. His triumph was far more than a sports story – half of his most ardent fans don’t even follow golf, and we should all be grateful that he has brought so many people to appreciate our ancient game. Woods had fallen from the heights of global celebrity to widespread shame and so many injuries so severe that probably no other great athlete would even attempt a comeback. But everyone was crying and shouting as he walked up the 18th fairway last year with the trophy in his pocket. It had been 11 years since he had won a major tournament – and that one was on one good and one broken leg. Among many other physical and emotional injuries, Woods’ spine was fused. How do you turn your body into a coiled backswing with a fused spine? Many times during the many tournaments over that decade, I told people that I thought that out of sheer willpower, he would do it again – but most of his doctors didn’t.
In yet another era, another driven man literally came back from the dead to reach the summit of golf and stay there for a decade. In 1947 and 1948, Ben Hogan had found his perfect swing and was by far the best player in the world, even though he was weekly in the ring with future Hall of Famers Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Jimmy Demaret. Then, in 1949, on a fogged-over two-lane Texas highway, a Greyhound bus passed a truck and ran head-on into the car Hogan was driving. In the second he had once he was certain the bus would hit them, Hogan found a way to leap from the driver’s seat and throw his body over his wife, Valerie, to protect her in the next seat.
In that second his body was crushed, and his life was changed. Both sides of his pelvis were broken, as were a collarbone and his left ankle. Several of his ribs were damaged, and near-fatal blood clots in his lungs kept him in the hospital for two more months after he began to mend.
If Hogan had not jumped to protect Valerie, his story would have ended there. Within inches of him, the impact drove the steering mechanism and the engine block through the driver’s area and into the back seat.
After more than a year of rehabilitation, with his renowned penchant for punishing practice sessions and always improving his swing, Hogan began his comeback in April 1950, when he tied for fourth at the Masters. From there, he put together a never-matched string of top-eight-or-better finishes in 15 consecutive majors, including six victories. One of those was in 1953, in the only Open Championship in Great Britain he ever entered. That year, Hogan astounded the golf world with three major championships, and because of the arduous format, he didn’t enter the fourth. He had long since stopped playing the PGA because the tied-off major vein in his lung, which had trapped the blood clots that would have killed him, robbed him of the stamina required to play the 36-hole match play final-day format used by the PGA in their brutally hot August event.
Is Woods’ physical comeback greater than that? Well, maybe it is, or maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe all great champions overcome great adversity.
All three of these golfers – Woods, Nicklaus and Hogan – certainly rank among the greatest players in the history of the game, and all three have greatly added to the luster of the Masters with a total of 13 victories.
After the green jacket ceremony last year, as roughly 10,000 patrons marched to the exits, they chanted in unison as loudly as you’ve ever heard: “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!”
It was a testament to the man, to his undaunted determination and to the tournament. Things like that just don’t happen very often around the world. But they are not particularly rare in Augusta.
The Masters just keeps getting better – and it has long since been the best! Here’s a day-by-day look at the 2019’s tournament:
Par 3 Contest, Wednesday, April 10
Englishman Matt Wallace, who celebrated his 29th birthday on Friday during the 2019 tournament, won the annual steam-valve Par 3 Contest on the nine-hole mini-course next to “the big course.” The players get to Augusta all wound up with anticipation. Barring a big investment mistake, a green jacket should make a player wealthy for life. There’s a lot on the line, both fame and the fortune. The tension breaks for a few hours as the high-strung players laugh with their buddies at the event that’s more like a massive picnic than an actual golf game. Almost all the players are close friends with other players. They came up through the same ranks together, and that creates a bond that is happily evident during the Par 3 Contest.
Wallace tied 1988 Masters champion and Scotsman Sandy Lyle for first in the Par 3 at 5-under 22, and then won on the third playoff hole. Wallace made a hole-in-one on No. 8 to jump into contention for the fine crystal trophies given to the winner and runner-up. Others with holes-in-one that day were amateur Devon Bling, 1998 Masters champion Mark O’Meara and 2019 Open champion Shane Lowry.
Wallace gave sports writers a box to check by winning the Par 3 Contest and not winning the tournament – in 60 years, no one has ever won both.
Thursday at the Masters brings an excitement that is close to pure joy – even in bad weather. But Thursday in 2019 dawned mostly sunny, with bright white cumulous clouds brilliantly contrasted by a perfect blue sky. As the white and blue rolled over grass of the brightest green you will ever see, patrons rejoiced that Augusta National Golf Club’s master gardeners did it again as they saw thousands of flowering bushes exploding with colors that would challenge a rainbow.
It’s just not possible to adequately describe Thursday at the Masters. Old hands love to watch first-time fans as they come out of the very cool shopping and food venue entrance onto the course. The uninitiated come out from under the trees, look around and wander to a stop, gazing as if in a trance. Then they always say something to the order of: “I was told to be prepared that it is so beautiful, but they were right; this can’t be described. You have to see it.”
Another common glazed-eyed comment is: “It’s like a cathedral. A cathedral of nature.”
All day Thursday, everybody consults the indispensable pairing sheets (the Masters prints a daily one-page guide listing when each player tees off with a map on the back). Some arithmetic gives patrons enough information to figure out where they can catch up to their pre-tournament picks or their heroes.
Thursday (and Friday) are also for seeing the older legends, the past champions who will probably not make the cut, so they won’t be there on Saturday or Sunday. (It’s probably not necessary to search for past champions Bernhard Langer and Freddie Couples for your only chance to see them; those two marvels likely will make the cut.)
If you are celebrity-hunting, whether past champions or stars in other sports or entertainment, turn left when you walk in at the No. 1 fairway and walk up the steep hill toward the huge live oaks and the fabled antebellum-looking clubhouse. Under the oaks, waiters buzz around a dozen or so very pretty umbrella-topped iron picnic tables filled with happy, laughing guests. You can walk very close to the outer row of tables along a bright plastic cord barrier, which you cannot cross unless you have a clubhouse badge.
Still, the patron’s badge is honored almost everywhere else. When they started the tournament in 1934, the great Bobby Jones and his partner Clifford Roberts wanted to establish a tournament where the people in the galleries were highly respected and their comforts were attended to. Food and drink are inexpensive, usually simple but very tasty and homemade right there on the grounds. The clothing costs what you might expect, but the items are classic, tasteful and attractive – they last for decades – and it is the only place in the world – and the only days of the year – you can buy them. Masters shirts and caps with that unmistakable little yellow outline of the United States are recognized wherever golfers travel anywhere in the world.
(Important hint: Buy that stuff on the way out, or you’ll have to carry it all day. For some patrons, the merchandise means so much to them that they execute their plan to come in, shop for an hour, walk back to their car and then walk back in. But that takes about another hour when I’d rather be on the course.)
Of course, Thursday isn’t just about sightseeing and shopping. There is some serious golf to be played.
Since the end of the last golf season, a world full of “experts” (some of whom actually are experts, but they’re still just speculating, too) spent hundreds of hours telling us who is going to win this year’s Masters.
The golf writers who picked then-world No. 4 Koepka or No. 6 DeChambeau were looking pretty savvy after their guys matched 6-under rounds of 66 on that beautiful Thursday.
DeChambeau who has the most unorthodox swing on the Tour, made it sound like a Sunday from the roaring crowds who followed him as he dropped six birdie putts on his final seven holes.
Different holes but same story for Koepka, winner of four major championships in the last three years. He lit it up as he started the back nine with birdies on Nos. 10, 12, 13, 14 and 15.
One stroke back in solo third at 67 was three-time Masters champion Mickelson, a gallery favorite. Phil the Thrill made the greens on the back nine look like giant dart boards, nailing birdie approaches at Nos. 12, 13, 15, 16 and 18. With the exception of Woods, nobody’s roars in Augusta are as loud as Mickelson’s, and he had the course rocking all afternoon.
Tied for fourth, just another stroke back, with solid rounds of 4-under 68 were South Carolina native and fan favorite Dustin Johnson (then ranked No. 2 in the world) and biannual British Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter.
Still more favorites finished the first day tied for sixth at a very respectable score of 3-under 69. They included past champion Adam Scott of Australia; Rahm, who still has the shiny look of youth and talent on him; and Kevin Kisner, from just across the Savannah River in Aiken, who grew up going to the Masters with his golfing parents. Kisner’s friends are very enthusiastic, and there are a couple hundred of them in attendance at every round he plays. Tied with those three were Thailand’s best, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, and Justin Harding of South Africa – a country that has produced a string of great players.
Ten players were tied for 11th place at 2 under, including two of the pre-tournament experts’ favorites, Fowler and Woods.
Patrick Reed, 2018 champion, carded a 1-over 73 in the first round.
Friday patrons endured intermittent light rain interrupted by the real thing during a weather delay that started at 5:05 p.m. and lasted just 29 minutes. But most of the day was nice, and the temperature reached 84. Most Masters patrons take a weather delay as a cue to go shopping. After all, you’ve got the badge, and all your friends and relatives are home watching and wondering what color shirt or cap you are going to get for them. Of course, lightning must be taken seriously on any golf course, so if you don’t want to buy any clothes, a beer tent will do for shelter.
Friday was also a time for a parade of major champions. Five players finished in a tie for the lead, and all five of them have a least one major championship on their resume.
First-round co-leader Koepka had a rocky ride but moved his total a stroke lower to 7-under 137, with a 1-under 71 on Friday. He bracketed a disastrous double-bogey on No. 2 with birdies at Nos. 1 and 3. With two bogies and a birdie on the rest of the front nine, he made the turn at 37. He gathered his immense strength with a birdie on No. 15, then got back into a tie for the lead with a birdie on the final hole.
Former PGA champion Jason Day and 2018 Open champion Molinari put together scores of 5-under 67s to join Koepka. Playing their way into the leading quintet were 2013 Masters champion Scott with a 4-under 68, which included an eagle on No. 15, and the 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen with a seven-birdie, one-bogey 66. (Oosthuizen finished second to Bubba Watson in a playoff at the 2012 Masters. He holed the rarest of scores, a double-eagle on the par-5 No. 2, during that year’s final round.)
Johnson moved up a stroke to within one of first place with a 2-under 70 that included three birdies on the back nine. Tied with Johnson after the best round of the first two days, a 7-under 65, was Schauffele, firing eight birdies, including on all four par-5s. Tied with them was the man with the loudest footsteps on the golf course, Woods, who overcame two early bogeys with a 4-under 68.
Two of Thursday’s leaders lost some ground. Mickelson dropped to 4 under, three strokes behind, with a 1-over 73, and he wouldn’t get that close again. Four bogeys and a double bogey sliced DeChambeau’s standing from tied for the lead to trailing by four.
Coming in at 3-over 147, the 36-hole cut left 65 players with their clubs still in their hands – the most since the cut was established in 1957. Four of those still playing were amateurs, the most in 20 years.
Friday always has a bittersweet footnote in the great players who will not be around for the weekend. The cut was less brutal than usual, but it did include world No. 1 Rose. Also missing the cut was 1991 Masters champion Ian Woosnam, who announced his retirement as an active Masters competitor after signing his card.
If the ideal weather could improve, it did on Saturday, with a mostly cloudy sky, a high of 85 degrees and a just cool enough breeze of 5-10 mph.
The competition brought things closer, with just six players occupying the top four spots.
Molinari was the only one of Friday’s five-way tie to break out on Saturday. Built on a birdie string on Nos. 12-15, he finished with a round of 6-under 66 and a two-stroke lead at 13 under.
Another great move came from Tony Finau, who had not yet been a factor. But after coming out of the gate with three straight birdies, another at No. 6 and an eagle at No. 8, he made the turn on the front-side record of 30. Two more birdies on the back got Finau to second place at 11 under, two back, after posting a 64. He was joined there at second after a 5-under 67 by a stalking Tiger. After making bogey at No. 5 for the third straight round, Woods laid down six birdies on his way in. He had talked about the rebuilt back end of the green on No. 5 during a pre-tournament interview, saying it gave the pin placement committee another devilish target on this lesser-known hole that for years played as the toughest on the course. (Apparently, he would not figure it out; he made another bogey there on Sunday.)
Finally past No. 5, Woods made birdies on Nos. 6, 7 and 8, and then three more at Nos. 13, 15 and 16. The “experts” were quick to point out that of Woods’ 14 major championship victories, he had never come from behind to win one.
Patrick Cantlay and Webb Simpson also shot 64, which was the first time in Masters history that three rounds of 64 were shot on the same day. That number had been the course record for decades until both Greg Norman and Nick Price posted 63s during the late 1980s.
Maybe it was the perfect weather combined with the late Friday rain that brought out a broadside of 64s, but the scoring didn’t stop there. The field together shot an amazing 80 under, the lowest round in tournament history.
The weather finally turned, and the Green Jackets, as the tournament manager members are affectionately called, moved the tee times way up to race a predicted thunderstorm. They sent players off at 7:30 a.m. in threesomes off the first and 10th tees. The leaders teed off at 9:20 a.m. They did beat any dangerous weather, but the wind still reached gusts of 25 mph, with scattered showers and a high of 80 degrees.
For most of the day, it appeared that Molinari would win his second major championship in less than a year. Through No. 11, both Molinari and Woods were even par for the day, and the Italian was still two ahead.
Then the evil No. 12 reached out and drenched Molinari’s approach. The hole that had ruined so many Masters dreams over the decades fooled Molinari into changing his club and dunking his ball.
According to every person watching, they knew right then that Woods was about to win his fifth Masters. In addition to Molinari, three other leaders hit into the water on No. 12 and made double bogey: Finau, Koepka and Poulter. Woods played for the center of the green and made a simple two-putt par.
All the dunks were dramatic, but the script wasn’t finished yet.
Both Molinari and Woods made birdie at No. 13 to get to 12 under.
As the final group walked to their drives on No. 15, there was a five-way tie at 12 under among Molinari, Woods, Schauffele, Johnson and Koepka. Only Woods made another birdie the rest of the way.
Driving into the trees on the left of No. 15, Molinari botched the next two shots, ending up in the pond, and took a double-bogey 7. At the same time, Woods made what looked like an effortless birdie and walked off the green three strokes ahead of the Italian.
As he did several times in his glory days, Woods then hit his approach to the par-3 No. 16 to within 3 feet of the cup and a nearly tap-in birdie.
If the TV commentators weren’t ready to give it to him yet, it seems that every “non-expert” in the world knew that Woods was going to win, and they began to cheer him in a triumphant voice that swelled for almost an hour.
He tapped in for par on No. 17 and held a two-shot lead with one hole to play.
Walking up No. 18 with the trophy in his pocket, he knew he needed only a bogey to win – to turn back a more than decade-long nightmare and restore himself before the golfing world and the wider world and prove to himself that he had been right all along to believe in himself.
When he tapped in for that bogey, one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history washed over him – and over the deliriously happy patrons surrounding him 20-deep in every direction.
As Woods slipped into the sleeves of his fifth green jacket, one short of his hero Nicklaus, he also stood at 15 major tournaments, two shy of the great Nicklaus. Later in the year he would win his 82nd PGA Tour tournament to tie the once unassailable record of Snead for most career wins.
Another tournament win will pass Snead. Another Masters victory will tie Nicklaus. Two more major championships will catch Nicklaus in the most important milestone in the world of golf – historic all.
The man known for a work ethic that makes him push until his broken back won’t let him push further now has more to work for – and now those once-distant historic boundaries look as though they are all reachable. That’s the power of the Masters.
Article appears in the November 2020 issue of Augusta Magazine.