By Joel Beall
AUGUSTA, Ga. — The biggest roar for Tiger Woods was one he didn’t produce.
It was on the 12th, Francesco Molinari on the tee box. At that moment, Molinari was two shots ahead of Woods; it felt like 20. The Open champ had been more machine than man through 65 holes at the Masters, making just two bogeys on the week. “Guy doesn’t [expletive] miss,” actor Jon Hamm said on the 10th, shaking his head incredulously after Molinari had another “how’d-he-do-that?” save.
Except he did. As soon as Molinari made contact, it was clear his ball didn’t have enough juice. When this happens at the 12th, patrons will yell, “Go, go, gooooo.” Only this time, as the shot began falling out of the sky, the grandstands emitted an “Oh … ohhhhhhhhh.” And when the ball trickled into Rae’s Creek, there was an ever-so-brief moment of silence … and as Molinari stood staring into the distance, the hole named Golden Bell rang out across Augusta National:
“TIGER, TIGER, TIIIIIIIIIGGGGGGGEEEEEERRRRRR! LET’S GO TIGER!”
The 43-year-old had yet put his tee in the ground.
• • •
The patrons at the Masters are the most well-behaved, respectful gallery in sports, an etiquette mandated five decades ago by Augusta National co-founder Bobby Jones.
“It is appropriate for spectators to applaud successful strokes in proportion to difficulty but excessive demonstrations by a player or his partisans are not proper because of the possible effect upon other competitors,” Jones wrote.
Those words remain true, but the trouble with Jones’ directives of the past is that they could not possibly fathom the present.
Woods, the most dominant golfer of all-time, was on the precipice of completing sport’s greatest comeback. Already the most popular figure, his latest return was marked with a noticeable shift in his rapport with fans. Woods no longer just entertained, he galvanized them, and they returned the favor. So on Sunday, Augusta was not so much buzzing as it was ready to bust.
And this created an unforgettable and awe-inspiring and whatever-adjective-you want-to-insert atmosphere, one the Masters hasn’t seen since 1997, perhaps even 1986. Which is great if you’re Woods—who ultimately captured his 15th major victory—his millions of fans, and the broadcast that feeds off his magnetism.
If you happen to be one of Woods’ competitors, not so much.
Walking the course Sunday, one was hard-pressed to find someone, anyone who was pulling for Molinari, Tony Finau, Brooks Koepka or a player not named Eldrick.
A lovely man named Chase, situated on the right side of the 15th green, was already yelling “TIGER” before play rolled through. “Only Tiger today,” he said, repeatedly. Asked his thoughts on the rest of the field, he shook his head like an infant at cough medicine. “Only Tiger.” Those around nodded.
Six high-school golfers heading down to Amen Corner were given a similar survey, which was pointless, considering they were all wearing red Nike polos.
“They [Molinari, Koepka, etc.] are all fine players, and I hope they win a Masters or two some day,” said Harry Williams, who’s attended 16 Masters, while sitting beside the 18th green. “Not this one. This one belongs to Woods.”
A notion apparent throughout the final round. At the first tee, Molinari and Finau—both paired with Woods in the final threesome—received a warm welcome. That was the end of it. From then on, they were treated as annoyances, with a sprinkling of disdain. It wasn’t malicious; this ain’t Bethpage or Scottsdale, no boo birds to be found. They were, however, obstacles to history.
Which explains why their shots received muted receptions, if any at all. Birdies by Finau and Molinari at the eighth garnered claps usually saved for tap-in pars. Tiger’s? Like a 747 had taken flight. Woods was showered with shouts and cheers and high-fives on his walk from the ninth green to the 10th tee; Molinari, a good 25 yards behind Woods and Finau, walked through a hallway of humans in silence.
Even when finally discovering a lone group of Molinari backers (the lone group?) at the 11th fairway, it was an adulterated love. “Yeah, we’re rooting for him,” a 20-something said. “We got him at 35-1 in January!”
For the sake of transparency, that carried over to the media. The press has often been accused of being Tiger fan boys. Sometimes that’s true; frankly, we root for the best story, and often—certainly this time—that story is Tiger. Then again, cheers went up when Woods’ putt went down on the 18th.
To be fair, fans’ lack of embrace for Finau and Molinari wasn’t helped by their play. Finau’s second red figure didn’t come until the 13th, and Molinari’s lead called for a conservative strategy. This is Masters Sunday, where fireworks are supposed to happen.
In that same breath…c’mon, this isn’t rocket science. Anyone who watched Bay Hill or Innisbrook or Bellerive or East Lake can attest to that.
But it was also a climate that, at times, was uncomfortable. Imagine trying to climb to the top of your profession as the world wishes for your fall.
“I do feel bad for them,” a volunteer worked said at the 11th. “But everyone wants Tiger. What are you going to do?”
The problem was, Molinari wasn’t having it. He had already taken care of Woods at Carnoustie, at Ryder Cups. While everyone wanted him to crumble, the Italian continued to answer in cold-blooded fashion. When he’d execute a scramble, the crowd would respond in a distinctive “Ewwwwaaahhhh,” a sound that can only be classified as begrudging respect. Hamm, whose Don Draper “Mad Men” character was the epitome of cool, looked on in dazed resignation as Molinari tried his best to suck the life out of Augusta.
“I was calm,” Molinari said of the chaos that never left his side. “I was proud of the way I stayed calm. I gave it my best. That’s what I wanted to do. “
That was, until the 12th. Molinari insisted it was just a miss. “I think we picked the right shot and just didn’t hit it hard enough, as simple as that,” he said.
Woods followed with an approach safely on the green, amplifying those “Tiger!” chants to 10.
The 12th is already the most intimidating par 3 in golf. To do it when roars are reverberating through the loblolly pines is a pressure situation you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Not a surprise, then, that Finau followed Molinari into the drink, with his double effectively taking him out of the running.
“I don’t know if it affected my game or anything,” Finau said, who finished T-5, said of the crowd. Finau is not a spinster, and coming out of the heat of battle, perhaps he truly believed that. But sometimes you have to trust your eyes, and the eyes couldn’t help notice Finau’s shoulders slightly dip as Woods’ made par on the 12th.
As for Molinari, though he bounced back at the 13th, another double, this time at the 15th, put an end to his green jacket dream. When asked what effect the crowd had on him today, Molinari simply offered that it was “nice to be out there” with Tiger.
And least he got a front-seat to history, right?
“No,” Molinari said. “Sorry, but no, no. It was great to see, but, no, it’s actually you start losing a bit of adrenaline.”
Molinari and Finau weren’t the only victims of Tiger-mania. Koepka, playing in the penultimate group, backed off his shot a number of times thanks to Tiger-related thunder.
“I’ve never heard a Tiger roar that’s not loud,” Koepka said. “Every time he does something, does something well, makes a birdie, whatever it might be, there’s always a roar and I heard it at the PGA, you definitely hear it here and it’s always funny too because when they post it on the boards up ahead you can always, you hear even more roars.”
At the 13th and 15th, Xander Schauffele was similarly spooked off when the gigantic scoreboards revealed Woods’ updates, and knew his fate was sealed on the 17th green.
“You know, I knew once I was on (the green) and I heard a lot of roars, I knew he was on No. 16 and I knew he used the ridge properly like he should,” Schauffele said.
Part of the Masters mystique is you’re never quite sure who is causing the roars. Not on this day. “There are differences in roars and then Tiger roars,” Dustin Johnson said.
The leader board was as packed as its ever been in a final round, but for all of its actors, there was only one performer the patrons had come to see, and showered him with a five-hour ovation.
“The energy was brilliant,” Molinari admitted. “People were loving it.”
If only they gave Molinari the same courtesy.