Chasing the Golden Bear

Masters 2019: Tiger’s win fuels new question: Is Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors record back into play?

By Brian Wacker
AUGUSTA, Ga. — A win for the ages, and now a comeback for them, too. Tiger Woods, Masters champion again, for a fifth time.

“It’s come full circle,” Woods said after giving a fist pump and thrusting his arms overhead in joy on the 18th green at Augusta National on Sunday afternoon. “My dad was here in ’97, and now I’m the dad with two kids there.”

And the one pursuing Jack Nicklaus and his 18 major championships again, too. The chase is back on.

“I really haven’t thought about that yet,” Woods said of the Golden Bear’s record. “I’m sure that I’ll probably think of it going down the road. Right now, it’s a little soon, and I’m just enjoying 15.”

We should, too. But given where Woods has been it’s nice to be able to dream again, isn’t it? For Woods, and for us.

Golf is a game of numbers, and lord knows Tiger has his share. Some of them made the once inevitable seem like the impossible. Age (43), back surgeries (four), tabloid scandals (two) and days between major victories (10 years, 9 months, 28 days) took their toll.

Now he has another: 15, as in career majors. Sunday at Augusta National, Tiger reminded us that he is still Tiger, collecting his first green jacket in 14 years.

On an unusual day that had started with threesomes playing off split tees for the first time in the final round in order to beat forecasted late-afternoon thunderstorms, Woods was a picture of calm in an otherwise chaotic day that saw six players own at least a share of the lead.

Never was that more evident than in the middle of Amen Corner.

Trailing by two going to the par-3 12th hole, Woods watched as Francesco Molinari inexplicably came up short with his tee shot, the ball landing on the bank and rolling back into Rae’s Creek, then played safely to the left side of the devilish putting surface, setting up a two-putt par to tie for the lead.

Another birdie at 13 kept Woods there before one more on the par-5 15th gave him the outright lead for good. Then at the par-3 16th, 8-iron in hand, he stuck his tee shot to three feet and made the putt to extend the lead to two.

“The mistake Francesco made there let a lot of guys back into the tournament,” said Woods, who closed with a two-under 70 for a one-stroke victory over Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele and Brooks Koepka. “Myself included.”

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Tiger shakes hands with Patrick Reed during the Green Jacket Ceremony after winning the 2019 Masters.

Like the old days, he took advantage. It was everyone else who seemed to wilt. Four players in the last two groups, including the three-time major winner Koepka, met a watery demise on 12.

That Woods was even in this position given the state his body was in two years ago—prompting him to think he might never play again—was something of a divine intervention. Or at least a medical Hail Mary, after undergoing spinal fusion surgery in 2017. Then came a made-for-tabloid arrest on suspicion of DUI near his home in Jupiter, Fla., six weeks later, followed by a stint in rehab to deal with pain and sleep medication.

Woods eventually worked his way back, though, returning to the game seemingly happier, friendlier and at peace. His game turned out to still be pretty good, too, with near-victories in the Open at Carnoustie and PGA Championship at Bellerive before completing the comeback with a victory at the season-ending Tour Championship.

“Last year it was let’s play some golf, get some reps and win a tournament,” his caddie Joe LaCava said. “This year it was let’s play a little less, I already won that tournament I know I can do that, the next step is winning a major.”

There was never any doubt from those who witnessed the journey up close.

“I saw that this was a definite possibility,” said Rickie Fowler, a neighbour of Woods in South Florida who’d played plenty of home games. “Obviously you have to go out and do it and win, which is a lot harder than people think.”

Woods only made it look easy all those years.

“He’s getting older and it takes a little bit of work for him to get ready,” said the 30-year-old Fowler, 13 years Woods’ junior. “But he’s been through a lot. I don’t think people know how much.”

Is this the greatest comeback of all time?

Ben Hogan nearly died in a head-on collision with a bus, while Woods has been pieced together like the Six Million Dollar Man. But there were other hurdles the Hawk never had to deal with, including a fire hydrant, the chip yips and TMZ.

“This is definitely one of the greatest comebacks I think anybody’s ever seen,” said Koepka.

It’s not over yet.

“This puts 18 [majors] into real reach,” Fowler said. “I thought the first one would be the hardest.”

It doesn’t seem so implausible now. Next is the PGA Championship in May at Bethpage Black, where he won the U.S. Open in 2002, and after that the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he romped by a record 15 in 2000. Though he’s never played Royal Portrush, site of the Open Championship in July, he does own three claret jugs.

And of course annual trips to Augusta National.

“When you’re on 14 [the goal] is to get to 15,” LaCava said. “But now we can start thinking about 16. That’s good news right?”

Indeed. For Woods. For golf. Maybe not for Jack’s record.

“Well,” Woods said with that trademark grin. “I can win majors now.”

Plural that is.

 

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