Tiger Woods marched from the Butler Cabin to the practice putting green at Augusta National Golf Club, a smile stretched across his face, engulfed in a lovefest of cheers from his adoring fans, who chanted “Ti-ger, Ti-ger,” and waited for defending champion to do the honors of awarding the winner’s green jacket.
“Make sure you don’t mess it up,” Woods teased his US Ryder Cup teammate.
The jacket still fit. It was the fifth green jacket for Woods, one shy of Nicklaus’s record, and first since 2005. That 14-year gap between Masters victories is a record, too. Woods outlasted a star-studded leaderboard on a day in which tee times were moved up to avoid inclement weather and as many as six golfers held the lead. With three birdies in a four-hole span beginning at No. 13, Woods kept pace and surged into sole possession of the lead with a two-putt birdie at 15 and held on to shoot two-under 70 for a one-stroke victory over Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele and Brook Koepka.
“You couldn’t have had more drama than we all had out there, and now I know why I’m balding,” Woods said. “This stuff is hard.”
It completed a comeback for the ages. In less than two years, Woods has gone from washed up and arrested in the middle of the night on a DUI charge to whipping his faithful fans into a frenzy when he held the tournament trophy aloft, and renewing belief that Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships is back on the table.
“You’re like, man, that’s the guy I know, that’s the way he used to play, just an absolute animal,” said Ernie Els, the four-time major champion.
The pursuit of Nicklaus’s record seemed dead and buried after Woods had to withdraw from the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in February of 2017. His latest back surgery had withstood all of seven rounds, and Woods attended the Masters strictly as a guest at Tuesday night’s Champions’ Dinner. That’s where Nicklaus approached Woods and asked how he was feeling.
“Not good,” Woods replied. “I think I’m done.”
During his acceptance speech Wednesday for the Ben Hogan Award, given to a player who has remained active in the game despite a physical handicap or serious injury or illness, Woods detailed how he needed a pain-relieving shot just to attend the Champions Dinner, and flew immediately to England to consult with a back specialist. The verdict was to undergo another surgery. Bad backs have ended numerous careers. Fusing the lower lumbar had saved none. And yet Woods elected to undergo surgery for one simple reason.
“That was last-case resort and ended up being the only option I had left,” said Woods, who could barely walk, sit or lay down. “I really couldn’t do much of anything.”
For a man who had relied on physical strength as part of his style, Woods appeared to be done. His surgeon said he might be able to play some hit-and-giggle golf with friends. And yet there he was last year, with chances to win the Open Championship and PGA Championship on the back nine Sunday. He won for the 80th time on the PGA Tour at the Tour Championship in September.
“If you look at his golf swing, it would be hard to argue it’s not as good now as it’s ever been,” ESPN analyst Andy North said before the tournament.
On Sunday, Woods had to chase down Italy’s Francesco Molinari, who had a stretch of 50 holes during the Masters without a bogey. He played flawlessly until the back nine on Sunday when he dunked his 8-iron tee shot into Rae’s Creek at the par-three 12th and made double and splashed a pitch shot at 15 that sealed his fate. He finished T-5.
Seemingly out of nowhere came Patrick Cantlay with an eagle at 15 vaulted into the lead, but just as quickly made bogeys at 16 and 17 and he was out of the trophy hunt. Then Koepka, Schauffele and Johnson climbed to 12-under to make it a party of five with Woods and Molinari, but only Woods could add to his birdie total on the closing stretch.
“I hit some of the best shots on that back nine today,” Woods said. “You know, I felt like I just flushed it coming home, which was a nice feeling.”
When Woods’s 8-iron at 16 crawled down the ridge to within three feet, he stretched his lead to two and not even a bogey at the last could spoil his celebration. Woods let out a primal scream with caddie Joe LaCava and hugged his children, son Charlie and daughter Samantha, and his mother Kultida.
“It’s hard to really feel bad about how I played, just because, you know, I just witnessed history,” Schauffele said. “It was a throwback, seeing him in red in the mock turtleneck. It’s what I saw as a kid, and it was just really cool to know him a little bit now and congratulate him coming off 18.”
It had been nearly 11 years since Woods’ last major triumph at the 2008 U.S. Open, and now the pursuit of Nicklaus’s record is alive and well.
“I felt like the hardest one for him to win was going to be the next one to get to the 15 mark,” Reed said. “He just needed to get that one and get that taste again. For him to get another one the way he did with everybody bunched like that, I’d be shocked if he wasn’t knocking on the door of 18.”
“I think it’s a lot closer than people think,” added Koepka.
The PGA Championship at Bethpage Black in May can’t come soon enough after this Masters for the ages.