That’s when it started to feel real. Woods led the Masters by two strokes with two holes to play. His reaction was to collect his ball and subtly pump his fist. Woods had more golf to play, after all.
But most people following Woods responded by preparing for him to win the Masters, 14 years after he last did it. There was no way it wouldn't happen now.
Thousands of spectators streamed across the golf course, trying to beat the crowd to the 18th green for the celebration. They were much too late. Thousands more were already gathered there, waiting for Woods to come win the Masters again.
And Woods did it. He tapped in for bogey at the 18th hole for a one-stroke win at 13-under-par. Stoic and steady all day, Woods let out a scream and pumped both fists. Everyone followed his lead. It was as close to a party as this staid old club will tolerate.
Fans hollered and exchanged high-fives. A person who operates the manual leaderboard poked out from their perch and cheered. Clubhouse staff excitedly crowded the balcony, waiting to see Woods make the walk to sign his scorecard.
First, Woods stopped near the green to greet his mother and children. It was near the same spot he’d memorably embraced his father after winning his first green jacket in 1997.
“I hope they are proud of me,” Woods said of his kids. “I hope they are proud of their dad.”
That 1997 Masters victory was Woods’ first at a major championship. At 21-years old, he was the youngest ever champion here. It was the opening argument for what became an airtight case for Woods as the greatest golfer of his generation.
This Masters victory was his 15th at a major. At 43-years old, Woods is the second-oldest champion behind Jack Nicklaus, who was 46-years old when he won his sixth Masters in 1986.
That was the last of 18 major championship for Nicklaus. Woods won his 15th two years after he wasn’t sure if he could play competitive golf again.
» Masters payout: Tiger pockets more than $2 million
“I had the procedure on my back, which gave me a chance at having a normal life,” Woods said. “But then all of a sudden, I realized I could actually swing a golf club again. I felt if I could somehow piece this together that I still had the hands to do it.”
Woods still can do it. It was a stunning development. It was surreal to witness. All day, so many strangers following Woods turned to one another and said some variation of: Can you believe it?
Woods started the day two strokes behind Francesco Molinari and tied with Tony Finau. The threat of severe afternoon weather meant those three would play in the lead group as the tournament began in the morning from the first and 10th tees.
Molinari bogeyed the seventh hole, his first above-par score in 50 consecutive holes, but he birdied the eighth. He had a two-shot lead over Woods and three over Finau entering Amen Corner.
Molinari’s first hiccup happened at the 12th hole, when he dumped his tee shot into the water. Finau did the same. Woods hit to the safe part of the green, 50 feet from the hole.
Molnari took a drop, hit a poor pitch shot and double bogeyed. Finau also double bogeyed. Woods two-putted for par. Now he was tied with Molinari.
“The mistake Francesco made there let a lot of guys back into the tournament, myself included,” Woods said.
Everyone in the threesome birdied the par-5 13th hole. At the next hole Woods hit a beautiful fade on his approach shot and stuck the ball 15 feet from the pin. He made that birdie putt.
Molinari’s next miscue, at the 15th hole, sank him. I couldn’t see it because I was stuck behind a sea of spectators, but this was another case of the sound telling the story.
Decorum calls for them to refrain from cheering failure. It was hard for them to manage when they were so clearly pulling for Tiger. I knew their suppressed screams of excitement meant Molinari had chunked his pitch shot into the pond in front of the 15th green.
Woods took over from there. A crescendo of sound from well-wishers followed him from the 16th tee to the green. A jarring quiet settled in before he made the putt.
Other winners of majors challenged: Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Webb Simpson, Jason Day. They couldn’t overtake the greatest champion of them all.
“There were so many guys that had a chance to win,” Woods said. “Leaderboard was absolutely packed and everyone was playing well. You couldn't have had more drama than we all had out there, and now I know why I'm balding. This stuff is hard.”
You had to hear it to believe it.