Tiger Woods returns to glory, harkening emotions of the past in genius performance at 2019 Masters
Woods' genius, emotion-filled effort at Augusta National brought an honor few thought possible
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Tiger Woods is many things. He is foremost a golfer, but he's also a son and a father and by pretty much every account of his well-documented career, a genius. I was reminded of that last part of his identity as he struck putts on the practice green situated beyond the 10th tee box before his final round on Sunday at Augusta National. He blinked hard and spoke softly to himself as his Bridgestone balls crested and dove at little white cups inset in these historic grounds. He was talking himself toward major championship No. 15 at a time when the leaders of this tournament should have been pouring coffee and reading the print newspaper (this is Augusta National, after all).
In that moment, he was a genius finding his creative plane. I could have stood there watching all day.
Woods, draped in red and black and aged sinew, popped under a graying sky. It did not feel like a Masters Sunday. Woods turned back time, literally in this case, as his first tee shot was in the air off the first hole at 9:21 a.m. local time. Players were going off both tees because an afternoon storm was coming. Little did we know that the only storm we'd see on this day was swinging a TaylorMade driver and wearing a mock-neck red shirt.
The starter at the first hole did not announce Woods' name. I suppose at this point when the yoked-up dude in the final pairing is wearing red and black, you just let it go. Everybody already knows.
Woods just rolled down the hill and parred the first and the second. He birdied the third as his daughter Sam -- floating in a big contingent of Tiger friends, family and employees -- skipped down toward the rope line to see the putt fall. I don't know if she caught a glimpse, but she certainly knew the outcome.
Tiger stalked the fourth tee after his birdie at No. 3. His eyes were on the tops of the towering pines. A genius demanding help from his surroundings. Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said earlier in the week that some of these trees are nearing their death. A nice parting gift would be some answers for Woods. They didn't succumb, and he came up well short, bogeying the fourth.
Then came the fifth, which he bogeyed for the fourth consecutive day. Two grown men in shirts depicting goats with tiger-striped skins were unfazed. Woods stepped into the bathroom after the fifth and said some things to himself he later preferred to not repeat in public. Whatever unspeakable things were said by Tiger to Tiger, they worked.
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Tiger made birdies on Nos. 7 and 8 to get to 1 under on the day and scrape the top of the leaderboard at 12 under as playing partner Francesco Molinari plodded on at 13 under. I didn't see the birdie putts on those two holes, partly because patrons were running 10 deep around every green and partly because I chose instead to hear and feel a Tiger Sunday. I've seen plenty of them before; I wanted all the senses activated.
After flying the ninth green as incoming wind started to trick up the course, Woods had a delicate putt back toward the pin. A hair too strong, and it could roll down the hill and bring double bogey into play. Woods left it dead at the hole and tapped in for par. His body, he said after the round, might not be as strong as it used to be, but his hands are as good as ever.
A bogey at No. 10 led to the moment of the tournament. Woods sprayed a drive on the par-4 11th that landed in a bowl of pine needles, fertilizer and mud well right of the hardest hole on the course. Spectators were roped off like cattle after a security guard tried to break up a double play with Woods playing the part of the second baseman earlier in the week, and Woods crouched behind his ball examining his options.
The eyes have it.
That was the poster Nike tells me Rory McIlroy had hanging in his bedroom as a child. Who among us didn't have that poster?
As he crouched, Woods' eyes told me that this shot was the axis of his 2019 Masters. How many different scenarios were going through his head at that moment as the leaderboard conglomerated? He later said all he was thinking was par. He hit a tight, dangerous draw toward the water off of that ridiculous lie.
Genius manifests itself in different ways. On No. 11 and then on No. 12, it was the wisdom of a man who has played nearly 100 rounds at this tournament. After Molinari came up breathtakingly short on the dangerous 12th and his ball chugged for the water, Woods put one in the heart of the green. He would have pounded one onto Augusta Country Club before he was going to repeat what the Italian had just done.
Two putts for par, and Woods was tied for the lead. At Augusta National. On a Sunday. On the second nine.
Tiger made an easy birdie on the 13th, but Molinari did the same. After Molinari's double bogey at the 12th, it felt as if they would be in lockstep the rest of the way. Frank the Italian against.
There wasn't a question who the spectators favored. A Sperry-wearing lad exclaimed at one point, "I hate to admit it, but I'm praying Molinari goes left here." The board read "F. Molinari," which is also what the patrons likely thought.
Tiger handed Frank the Headcover to Joe the caddie and pounded the horizon at the 14th. It ended in par, but it set up a four-hole close that would be among the greatest hour-long stretches in golf history.
The best shot at Augusta National is the second into No. 15. It's the last moment you have to yourself before descending into a lair of spectators ready to see the tournament turn. As a private jet -- probably Rory McIlroy heading home, I remarked to another media member -- cut through the darkening sky, Tiger pumped a 5-iron to the middle of the green and two-putted for another birdie to push his number to 13 under.
Frank the Italian leaked oil with a seven at the 15th. He was cooked. Ahead of them, Patrick Cantlay stumbled home as Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele were unable to muster much-needed birdies at the final two holes. They finished at 12 under.
Tiger wasn't done.
There was nowhere to go on the 16th, so we watched from the hill on No. 15 and saw Tiger's ball land deep and just left of the ridge that runs down the middle of that green. I grabbed a colleague by his rain jacket and hollered as the ball trundled for the cup, "Tiger's going to make a one on the 16th on Sunday at the Masters with the lead!"
It didn't fall, but it came close enough that it effectively ended the tournament. There is a breathless quality at the 16th. Maybe all par 3s are like that, but the inhalation during a player's practice swings combined with the exhalation when the ball is struck make for the most dramatic shot on the second nine for everyone in contention. All Woods needed was a tap in to move it to 14 under. The jacket was slipping from the field, and everyone knew it.
Woods smoked his drive at the 17th, and roars normally reserved for slick approaches and big-boy birdies were being unfurled on tee shots. The ovation Woods got on his tee shot on the 17th was louder than most birdie cheers on the property throughout the day. Woods stuck the landing on the 17th green to 11 feet.
Before he hit the putt, Woods grabbed his putter and dried his hands with a towel. He stared at the board looming over No. 17. Seven numbers were missing. Two each from his threesome at Nos. 17 and 18, and one from Brooks Koepka at the last.
I wonder what he thought about as he stared at that board. I wonder if he thought about the time he stared at it 22 years ago as his father waited for him 400 yards away behind the 18th green. I wonder if he thought about the time in 2005 when he stuck two 5s in those last two slots and almost blew the best 2 at No. 16 in the history of this tournament.
I wonder if he thought about how his kids were now waiting 465 yards away.
Woods missed the 11-foot birdie putt, but it didn't matter. On the 18th, he hit 3-wood and sheathed it with a flip spin of the club.
The walk up the 18th was a parade. Patrons lined the left side that bends around a bathroom and runs up parallel with the 9th green. They also lined the right side through the woods and up the 10th. The top of the hill was chaotic. Chairs ran 20 deep. Humans ran double that or more. Nobody could see anything, but nobody was going to miss saying they were there for one of the greatest days in golf history.
Near the back where I stood, spectators ran 60 or 70 deep in a straight line. Grown men and women in hats with yellow maps of America on the front popped up and down like jack-in-the-boxes for the next minute as Woods prepared to two-putt for bogey and a one-stroke win, his 15th major and fifth green jacket.
After Molinari got the "thank you for ejecting" applause on the 18th, Woods finally closed and screamed. The place melted. Like Nicklaus in 1986, a scoreboard operator pumped his arm up and down from 30 feet in the air as if conducting a train. The roar was the loudest I've ever encountered up close at a Masters.
Tiger made his way up the hill and embraced his kids. His son Charlie came hurtling at him, and Tiger wrapped him up. It was the same spot where he embraced his father 22 years ago. The Masters is nothing if not a tremendous marker for the passage of time. And those images are a new touchstone. Wright Thompson said Augusta is about fathers and sons. When Tiger embraced Charlie, I believed it.
As Woods zig-zagged to everyone in his group behind the green, somebody among the thousands started chanting "Ti-ger, Ti-ger, Ti-ger." A cacophony rose, and it lasted a long time. Woods walked toward the scoring building, and he released years of frustrating injuries and futile showings at the majors he desperately craves. He pounded the hands of people he'll never see again and screamed into the Augusta air until his voice was hoarse.
It was the modern version of Bobby Jones's 1930 celebration in the streets of New York.
Genius, by definition, is an extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity, and it is nearly the only way to explain what has happened over the last 730 days. At the 2017 champions dinner, between bites of Danny Willett's mini cottage pies, Woods gasped that he was toast. Now? The only toast is one raised to the greatest winner in golf history.
"It's overwhelming," Woods told the gathered media of his fifth green jacket. "I think just because of what has transpired, and last year I was just very lucky to be playing again. The previous dinner, the champions dinner [in 2017], I was really struggling and missed a couple years of not playing this great tournament."
German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote: "Talent hits a target that no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see."
Nobody saw this target for Woods. I'm not talking about the one on the 2nd hole or the 9th or the 15th but rather the one beyond the 18th. The one where they hand out -- as Woods apparently calls them -- the "green coats."
Who could have seen that coming 12 or 18 or 36 or even 72 months ago? It is a target that didn't even exist. Woods created it out of thin air, and then he hit it.
In doing so, Woods set a new record by going 14 years between Masters wins. It's fitting that his first major win since his fourth back surgery came at this incredible course some think is the most ingenious puzzle in the sport. There is a brilliance to unlocking its secrets. There is a genius to doing it five different times with nearly as many different swings.
As Woods finally entered the scoring building to make his historic round official, the sun was sheathed by a bundle of clouds. It began to rain. The scene and the reality of it all were both surreal. It was a reminder that, some day, all of this will wash away. All of the memories and all of the bodies and all of the jackets and all of the trophies will be laid to rest.
The sun holds on as long as it can, then it gives way to the inevitable.
Before that time comes, we all strive to flourish as much as humanly possible -- for ourselves and for those around us. We strive to make memories and deliver something to our parents and to our kids. As I walked around Augusta National, that's what I saw: moms taking their daughters and sons taking their fathers to this magical place. It's easy to spot and even easier to enjoy: kids grinning from ear to ear, parents of parents doing the same.
Woods gets to experience both at the highest level possible. Two decades after he delivered to his father the most bananas week in golf history, he delivered the same to his kids in their first trip to Augusta National. He was, quite simply, a father bringing his kids to Augusta, just like a thousand other people I saw over the last seven days.
Lifetimes have been lived in the time between his first Masters win and his latest. Tiger's father never got to meet Tiger's kids; now they are joined by two iconic moments in one timeless place.
An explosion of tears for an aging dad from the most preternaturally gifted golfer of all time marked the 1997 Masters.
Twenty-two years later, it is the rest of us who cried as we considered how a son and his father are now linked for the rest of time to a father and his daughter and his son.
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