On a frenetic Sunday, Woods held steady as other players unravelled around him, just as he did for years
By Dave Kindred
What he couldn’t do, he did. What he would never do, he did. He was left on the bone pile years ago. Early on, in his infant immortal days, golf’s wise men said only a bad marriage or a bad back could stop him. What those pieces of life could not do, it turns out, is keep him tethered to the earth, for now, he has won the Masters again, his fifth Masters, his first since 2005, and we remember that day in ’05, the day the earth moved for Tiger. Or so he said of that little chip from the fringe of the 16th green …
… that rolled down a hill into a valley toward the hole…
… the ball turning on its axis a dimple at a time …
… until it stopped at the hole’s steel-cut edge …
… and we saw the swoosh stop, stop, wait, now, maybe, moving …
“Got a great break on 16,” Woods said of that moment, “didn’t go in the bunker, didn’t go in the rough and somehow an earthquake happened and it fell in the hole.”
Today at the 16th, he was again Tiger Woods, in command of his game and himself, this time perfect, no magic necessary. This time the tee shot at the par 3 landed about halfway down the track of the ’05 chip. It moved on that famous line toward the hole, and wise men might have asked what could ever be better than what happened in ’05? What could be better than a birdie-2 that helped him win back in the day? Well, OK. How about, this time, a hole-in-one?
Almost that good, today’s shot rolled by the top edge and left him a kick-in 2½-footer for a birdie that put him two shots up on everybody, two shots up on men who’d come late throwing eagles at him, two shots up on others who felt his heat and turned away. He kicked that one in at 1:44 p.m. on April 14, 2019, and it might have been in the gloaming of April 10, 2005, for here was Tiger again, “Tiger, tiger, burning bright,” William Blake’s tiger, of whom the poet asked, “What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
At the 16th, one man’s notes read “tee shot perfect, he’s expecting perfect now.” Tiger later said, “I hit some of the best shots on that back nine today. I felt like I just flushed it coming home, which was a nice feeling.”
From there it was only a matter of closing the deal. It says here that no one, save perhaps Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan, has ever been better than Tiger at stepping on a rival’s throat. This Masters was Woods’s 15th major championship, the first since 2008 when he won the U.S. Open limping home on a broken leg. More telling, he won a major for the first time by coming from behind on the last day; the other 14 times, he either led or was tied going into the last round. This time he started the day two shots behind Francesco Molinari.
“To have the opportunity to come back like this,” he said, “it is probably one of the biggest wins I’ve ever had, for sure, because of it.”
Through 11 holes he still trailed Molinari by two shots. On the diabolical 12th, a little par 3 set on the far side of Rae’s Creek, Molinari made a killing mistake. His tee shot fell short and rolled back into the water. In his turn, refusing as always the sucker bet of firing at the far-right Sunday pin position, Woods dropped his tee shot in the dead centre of the green; two putts later, he had come even with Molinari. When Molinari chunked a short chip into the pond fronting the 15th, Woods’ two-putt birdie there gave him the lead for good.
Tiger’s birdie at the 16th was his sixth of the day in a round of 70 for a tournament total of 275, one shot better than Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele and Brooks Koepka, who between them recorded 15 birdies and an eagle. At one point late in the going, the leader board had 10 men separated by two shots: five guys at 12 under, one at 11 under, four at 10 under. “All hell’s breaking loose,” the notes reported, another way of saying every Masters begins on the back nine Sunday.
”There were so many different scenarios that could have transpired,” Woods said. “Leader board was absolutely packed and everyone was playing well. You couldn’t have had more drama than we all had out there, and now I know why I’m balding.” Hold a beat for the laugh, then: “This stuff is hard.”
It was this stuff:
Bubba! Birdie-birdie-eagle! Cantlay! Koepka’s back! Molinari’s wheels coming off! Finau, too! Day! Tiger’s smoothin’ along! Xander! Dustin’s 1 of 5 at 12 under, where’d he come from!?! Bye-bye, Molinari!
Yes, as he’d done in halcyon days when he owned the world, Tiger smoothed along when it mattered most. He let the lesser players find ways to damage themselves. This time, on holes 11 through 17, Woods went par-par-birdie-par-birdie-birdie-par and, when it no longer mattered, a bogey at the 18th where, after the last little putt, he allowed himself, for the first time all day, a moment of celebration. He threw high and wide his arms to the thousands of fans, jubilant and raucous, the air ringing with “Tiger! Tiger!” Coming off the green, he embraced his mother, Tida, and his children, Sam and Charlie, before moving through a handshake line of players celebrating their old hero reborn, Koepka, and Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson, Mike Weir, Zach Johnson.
Six months ago, Woods said, he began preparing for this Masters. If he is to match Nicklaus’s record 18 majors, the most likely starting place was Augusta National, where he first had historic success, the youngest Masters winner ever, the biggest margin of victory ever. Come this summer, the U.S. Open will be played at another of his favourite places, Pebble Beach.
So, is the Nicklaus record on his mind?
Not now, he said. Not on this great day.
“I’m sure that I’ll probably think about it going down the road.”
The old dad, 43, was happier thinking about Sam, 11, and Charlie, 10.
“For them to be here and see what it’s like to have their dad win a major championship, I hope that’s something they’ll never forget.”
Tiger did know what’s next for him.
“I’m excited,” he said, “about show-and-tell at school.”