The master is back. Twenty-two years after he first won at Augusta National, 14 years after he last did it, Tiger Woods’ triumph at the 2019 Masters a week ago yesterday gave him major championship victory No. 15. In winning this one aged 43, three years younger than Jack Nicklaus was when he became the oldest winner in 1986, Woods elevated himself to within three majors of the Golden Bear’s all-time record. He and Nicklaus are the only players to have won majors more than 20 years apart and no player had ever won a Masters having undergone a 14-year wait since the previous one. (Gary Player had a stretch of 13 years.)
With a final round of 70, Woods finished with a 13-under-par total of 275, a shot clear of Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele. He was doubtless relieved that neither of the former two were able to make their eminently holeable birdie putts on the final green, which meant that his somewhat shaky bogey five was good enough to complete the job. But when the story of the final day is remembered, it will be that this really was all about the back nine on Sunday. Tiger sealed it with his birdies at 15 and 16 but the decisive momentum change occurred at Amen Corner. Woods pushed his drive on 11 and pulled the one on 13 and without the subsequent good bounces he would perhaps likely have have gone 5-6 on those holes. In fact he shot 4-4. In between times, the leader, Francesco Molinaro hit his tee shot on the 12th into the water (as Koepka had done), and thus became the non-leader. Woods had his opening and he walked right on through.
Remarkably, this was the first major he’d won without having the 54-hole lead. Conversely, in August 2009 he had failed to win a major for the first time while holding that advantage, at the USPGA Championship. This coming November will be the 10th anniversary of the row and car crash that ultimately signalled the end of his marriage amid myriad stories of marital infidelity. When he returned to Augusta in 2010 it was to receive the silent treatment from the ‘patrons’ and a telling-off from club chairman, Billy Payne, that he had “disappointed all of us, and more important our kids and our grandkids”. Just two years ago, Woods told Nick Faldo at the Masters past champions’ dinner that his recurring injuries, notably to his back and knee, meant his playing days were pretty much shot. A month later he was charged with driving under the influence having been found asleep at the wheel of his car with the engine running while he was rattling with painkillers; he thought he was in California although he was in Florida. Extraordinarily, then came this!
That spinal-fusion surgery, something else that happened to him in 2017, sure did the trick. His ‘comeback’ was officially confirmed last September when he won the Tour Championship, 140 miles down the road from Augusta at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. That was his first tour title since 2013. It was part of what prompted the feeling that the man wasn’t done with collecting green jackets. “I don’t really need to win again,” he had said beforehand, “but I really want to.” But now that he has, we should not imagine we have been transported, as in Back to the Future, to what used to be the norm. “This doesn’t mean he’ll start winning every week,” said Padraig Harrington, sensibly and surely correctly. This is not least because his body isn’t the way it used to be. As Woods pointed out at Augusta: “The hardest part is I just can’t practise like I used to. My back gets sore. I just can’t log in the time that I used to and that goes with every part of my game. It was a little bit easier when I could work on everything. But that’s no longer the case. I just can’t do all the things all the time anymore.” Nevertheless, while there is a lot of work to be done to win four more majors to pass Nicklaus’s tally (four majors, note: that’s as many as Rory McIlroy has won in his career to date) the odds are that, now with 81 PGA Tour titles to his credit, he will get past Sam Snead’s record of 82. Maybe this season. Surely one day?
Perhaps the nicest touch at the Masters, the one most appreciated by him, was that his son, Charlie, and daughter, Sam, were watching the denouement, along with his mother and his girlfriend, from behind the 18th green. His own late father had been watching him from there 22 years beforehand. The circle of life indeed.
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