By David Westin | Photos provided by The Augusta Chronicle
Patron roars are not uncommon during the final round of a Masters Tournament. They signal a superb shot, and the sound reverberates through the pines at Augusta National Golf Club like a code.
Chants – as in repeating a word or phrase over and over – just don’t happen at the sedate course, where etiquette is the order of the day, thanks to the decree of former Augusta National co-founder Bobby Jones. Augusta National will never be compared to a boisterous NBA arena.
All that inhibition went out the window when Tiger Woods capped one of the greatest comebacks in sports history by winning the 2019 Masters.
The deafening chant of “Tiger, Tiger, Tiger” was heard over and over after Woods, playing in the final pairing of the day, tapped in on the 18th green and started a joyous walk to the scoring area to sign his scorecard. To reach the scoring area, located on the bottom floor of the clubhouse, Woods had to walk behind the ninth green, across the first fairway and then cross a patrons walkway to the left of the No. 1 fairway. Ropes on either side and security in front and behind him kept him from the patrons, some of whom did get a fist bump from the man whose continued participation in the Masters appeared to be over two years before.
It was a fitting finish to a tournament that had little in the way of normalcy, right down to the early afternoon finish, when the tee times were moved up because of the threat of severe afternoon weather. The tournament was over by 2:30 p.m., which is before the final group would have normally started. Sports fans who didn’t get the Saturday evening word about that early start were surprised when friends and neighbors told them what happened early Sunday afternoon. At least they could watch an encore showing of the event after the live one was over on CBS.
Surprises lurked around every corner at the 83rd Masters, from a first-ever final round matinee, to the way that Woods, who thought his career was over two years prior because of chronic back problems, won his fifth Masters title and his 15th major championship.
Never before had Woods won a major by coming from behind after 54 holes. He’d either been tied for the lead after three rounds or out in front of his previous major wins (four Masters, four PGA Championships and three U.S. Opens and British Opens.)
This time, Woods was two shots behind leader Francesco Molinari going into the final round. He shot 2-under-par 70 and won by a shot over three players, finishing at 13-under 275 at Augusta National.
“I’m not going to say it was just like old times, no,” Woods said. “It was very different. And just the way it played out. I mean, it was so different as a whole. You know, because we teed off in threesomes. There was a two-tee start. We went off early. These are things that have never happened in Augusta’s history.”
Some things didn’t change: Woods wore a red mock turtleneck shirt in the final round, just as he had on the day of his previous Masters victory in 2005. And his ball-striking harkened back to his prime: He led the field in greens in regulation, hitting 58 of 72, which tied for the fourth-best in Masters history (he also hit 58 when he won in 2001).
And his game was air-tight once he earned a share of the lead after the 12th hole when Molinari made a water-logged double bogey.
After blowing his tee shot into the right trees on the 11th hole (Woods still made par) until missing his drive on the 18th hole (a bogey), Woods did not miss a shot on the back nine.
That did not surprise Jack Nicklaus, who was watching the drama unfold on television.
“You watch it all day long and you think, this is a man who is possessed,” said Nicklaus, who is the only player with more green jackets (six) and more majors (18) than Woods. “He is possessed to win the golf tournament. He is absolutely under total control, and he was going to get it done. And he did.
“You watch how smart he played,” Nicklaus said. “Every shot I saw him play was a smart shot. When you got a guy who plays smart shots like that, plays them well, and knows what he’s doing and plays them with confidence, he should be your winner.”
Woods was playing his 86th career round at Augusta National, starting in 1995 as an amateur. His other victories came in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005.
“I just kept saying, I’ve been here, it wasn’t that long ago,” Woods said. “Just go ahead and just keep playing your game, keep plodding along and keep doing all the little things correctly. Miss the ball in the correct spots, be committed to it, even if the wind is puffing up and down, keep committed to it and committed to the shot shape, and I was.”
Six players had a piece of the lead in the final round until Woods exhibited his famed “killer instinct” once the lead was his with a birdie on the 15th hole. He never gave it up.
“The whole tournament, how many guys had a chance to win on that back nine, after Frankie (Molinari) made a mistake at 12?” Woods asked. “He just opened Pandora’s box to who’s going to win the championship, and I just happened to be one of those guys.”
Molinari was still tied with Woods going to No. 15, but the Italian made double bogey there. Woods birdied that hole and No. 16 and parred the 17th hole. That gave him a two-shot lead heading into the 18th hole, which allowed him to win even with a closing bogey.
The victory was hailed as one of the greatest comebacks in sports history because of the injuries (four back surgeries and the same number of knee operations) and personal problems Woods had overcome. In terms of the greatest Masters’ surprises, it is considered right up there with Nicklaus’ win in 1986 at age 46. At the time, it was Nicklaus’ first win in nearly two years and his first at Augusta National since 1975. Nicklaus is the oldest Masters champion, followed now by Woods.
Here’s why Woods’ comeback to his old form was so hard to fathom: At age 43 at the time, Woods hadn’t won the Masters in 14 years. His latest win set the mark for longest time between victories at Augusta National, and only Nicklaus had gone longer between his first and final Masters win. And Woods’ last major championship victory had been nearly 11 years ago. Before winning the Tour Championship the previous September in 2018, Woods hadn’t won any golf tournament in six years. He’d missed two years of competition because of back problems, including the 2016 and 2017 Masters. It was at the 2017 Champions Dinner before that year’s Masters that he confided to Gary Player that he feared his playing days were over because of his back problem.
“I could barely walk. I couldn’t sit. Couldn’t lay down. I really couldn’t do much of anything,” Woods said.
Later that month, he had his back fused, a last-ditch effort not just to get back on the golf course, but to improve the quality of his life.
Off the course, he had been embroiled in a 2009 sex scandal that led to a divorce a year later. Then, on Memorial Day in 2017, he was arrested for driving under the influence. He had five different drugs in his system, two of them prescription painkillers.
On the golf course, with his fused back allowing him to play again, Woods had started to show flashes of the “Tiger of Old” in 2018. He nearly won in Tampa, Fla., a month before the Masters. Though he didn’t contend at the Masters (a tie for 32nd), he had a share of the lead on the back nine in the British Open (he tied for sixth) and finished solo second in another major, the PGA Championship. A month later, he won the season-ending Tour Championship for his first win since 2013.
“It was one of the hardest (majors) I’ve ever had to win just because of what I’d been through,” Woods said of the 2019 Masters. “Going into the Masters, I felt that my swing had finally turned the corner because I was trying to make sure that I could hit a high draw with driver, 3-wood, 5-wood, any club in the bag, and I somehow found it. The short game came around, I found something in my grip there, and it just started coming – pieces started coming together.”
Still, there were doubters that he could come all the way back and win the Masters again.
The top current players, many of whom were inspired to take up the game by watching Woods win the 1997 Masters by 12 shots, weren’t among them.
“The way he played last year, I think we knew it was coming sooner or later,” Molinari said after the 2019 Masters.
Brooks Koepka, then the No. 1-ranked player in the world, said on Tuesday before the 2019 Masters that “We all know Tiger is back.”
The early final-round start didn’t bode well for Woods because he wouldn’t be able to rest his tender back after finishing off a third-round 67 after 6 p.m. on Saturday. Instead of a normal 2:40 p.m. final round starting tee time, Woods would have to go off at 9:20 a.m., meaning he would have to get up in the early-morning hours to get his back ready.
“That’s the fickle nature of having my back fused,” Woods said. “Some days I have more range of motion. Some days I don’t. Some days I ache more, and sometimes I don’t. That’s just – there’s more volatility, put it that way. There’s more days I feel older than my age than I do younger than my age. That’s one of the trickier things. And then you add the golf component to it.
“You know, being a little bit older and with the back the way it is, these are all – there’s a lot of concerns, and when it comes to what do I need to do to get ready and be ready to go and sometimes the quick turnarounds may be a little bit more difficult.”
As it turned out, Woods’ back never caused him any pain in the final round.
After it was over, Koepka, who was among that group that tied for second place, said, “We already knew he was back, but I think he put an exclamation point on it.”
Joining Koepka outside the scoring area to congratulate Woods were two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson, second-place co-runner-up Xander Schauffele, Rickie Fowler and Ian Poulter.
“That was a nice touch,” said Joe LaCava, Woods’ caddie.
If Woods’ 2005 Masters victory was for his ailing father Earl, who died less than a month later, this was for his two children – daughter Sam and son Charlie, neither of whom had seen him win a major championship. When Woods won his previous major, the 2008 U.S. Open, his oldest child, Sam, was 1 year old. Charlie was born in February 2009.
“My kids were there for the very first time at the big event (a Masters tournament round),” Woods said. “They went to the par-3 course, but they had never been to the big event. And then for me to come back and win on top of all that, it just added to it.”
In fact, a soccer tournament in Florida nearly kept Woods’ children home, by their choice.
“It probably wouldn’t have happened if Sam had gotten to the final of her state soccer tournament, which was on a Sunday,” Woods said. “Because they didn’t qualify for the finals of the state cup, I asked them if they wanted to come up. Charlie said, ‘No way, unless my sister comes.’ And had to convince Sam to come, and they decided to come up.
“To have them there was so special because to us in our family, Augusta has meant so much to our family,” Woods said. “My dad was there when I won my first one, my mom (Kultida) has been there for each and every one. So to be able to share it with the next generation, to share it with my kids is just surreal, to be honest. To have them see their Pops win, just like my Pops saw me win here, it’s pretty special.”
Article appears in the April 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.