AUGUSTA, Georgia — After each of his first 14 victories in major championships, there were fist pumps and smiles and hugs for those in his inner circle. But except for his Masters victory in 1997, when he became the first man of color to win a major championship and was greeted by his ill father, Earl, behind the 18th green, the emotion was always somewhat muted.
AUGUSTA, Georgia — Amen Corner has authored more than its fair share of incredible stories through the 83 years of The Masters Tournament, but…
Tiger Woods was on a mission to collect trophies, and he expected to win them. It was serious business.
After he won the 83rd Masters Tournament on Sunday, though, completing the most remarkable comeback in golf history, a love-fest broke out at Augusta National. The patrons serenaded him with “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!” Woods was spontaneous, unfiltered, the pure joy radiating from him as he screamed, pumped his fist, thrust his arms skyward over and over.
He bear-hugged caddie Joe La Cava, then swooped up his son, Charlie, and whispered in his ear, “I love you so much.” There were long, sweet embraces with his daughter, Sam, his girlfriend, Erica Herman, and finally his mother, Kultida. A greeting line of admirers waited to congratulate him, including a committee of grinning players, several of them in their own green jackets.
This was no longer business. This was a celebration, one of the greatest moments in golf history, the end of a complicated and difficult odyssey. Two years ago, in unrelenting pain from a back that would be fused days later, Woods needed a nerve block just to attend the Masters champions dinner and told those around the table he was done as a golfer.
His only goal was to end the misery and try to live a normal life.
On Sunday, he added yet another chapter to an extraordinary one.
Trailing Italy’s Francesco Molinari by two shots going into the final round, Woods broke away from a leaderboard logjam over the closing holes with some of the best ball-striking of his career, making birdies on Nos. 13, 15 and 16, the latter a tap-in after a near hole-in-one.
“I hit some of the best shots on that back nine today,” he said. “I just flushed it coming home.”
One by one, the top contenders fell away — Molinari, Tony Finau and Brooks Koepka all done in by water-ball double-bogeys at the treacherous little 12th — until there was just Tiger. He took a two-stroke lead to the final hole, made the anticlimactic bogey he could afford to make and beat Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele by one.
Woods shot a 70 and finished at 13-under 275. At 43, he won his fifth Masters and his 15th major, pulling closer to Jack Nicklaus’ records of six and 18. Not long ago, those records seemed impossibly out of reach. Now they are at least back on the table.
“Eighteen is a lot closer than people think,” Koepka said. “I would say that’s probably what we’re all thinking: that he’s definitely back, and 18 is not far.”
It was Woods’ first major title since he limped to victory at the 2008 U.S. Open and his first at Augusta National since 2005. Only Nicklaus, 46 in 1986, was an older Masters champion, and the 14-year span between Woods’ victories here is a record.
“Just unreal, to be honest with you,” Woods said in a packed interview room in the media center, his eyes glistening. “You know, just the whole tournament has meant so much to me over the years. Coming here in ’95 for the first time and being able to play as an amateur, winning in ’97, and then to come full circle, 22 years later, to be able to do it again …
“There were so many different scenarios that could have transpired on the back nine. There were so many guys that had a chance to win. The leaderboard was absolutely packed and everyone was playing well. You couldn’t have had more drama than we had out there, and now I know why I’m balding. This stuff is hard.”
And yet, he made it look easy.
He led the field in greens hit in regulation for the week at 80.6% and was at his ball-striking best Sunday, hitting 15 of 18. Down the stretch, when the pressure weeds out the not-ready-for-primetime players, he didn’t miss a shot until his approach on 18. Shades of 1997, when he inspired a generation.
“It was a throwback, seeing him in red in the mock turtleneck,” Schauffele said. “It’s what I saw as a kid and it’s just really cool to know him a little bit now and congratulate him coming off 18.”
The players who chased Woods were able to offset their personal disappointment with the knowledge that they had witnessed something very special, and from front-row seats.
“I don’t know how it looked on TV, but it was amazing to be a part of,” Koepka said. “I watch the leaderboard all the time to see where guys are at and what they’re doing, and to see Tiger, what he did down the stretch was impressive. We already knew he was back, but I think he put the exclamation point on it.”
Said Finau, “You can’t say enough about Tiger and what he’s done for the game. It’s great for him to be involved in the game and now he’s got his 15th major. He’s going to be a force to be reckoned with these next few years, I’m sure.”
It’s only natural now to look to a future that suddenly seems ripe with possibility. The PGA Championship in May is at Bethpage Black, where Woods won the 2002 U.S. Open. The U.S. Open in June is at Pebble Beach, where Woods was Secretariat, running away to a 15-stroke victory in the 2000 U.S. Open.
“I really haven’t thought about that yet,” Woods said of Nicklaus’ major record. “I’m sure that I’ll probably think of it going down the road. Maybe, maybe not. But right now, it’s a little soon, and I’m just enjoying 15.”
We are, too, Tiger. We are, too.