As Tiger Woods launched the first of the 70 shots that would see him all the way back to the mountaintop Sunday, one voice from the huge Masters congregation rose above the rest. Usually those in the gallery spout nonsense. But this one on the first tee, he was a poet, a prophet.
“Go full circle!”
And that is precisely what Woods did this red-letter day in his sport, completing a very wide, very long, very erratic loop back to the scene of his first major championship in 1997 to win his 15th and most redoubtable one yet.
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Last year's champion Patrick Reed transferred the most famous cloak in golf — the Masters green jacket — to Woods afterward in the Butler Cabin and confirmed a victory many believed impossible just two years ago when Woods underwent spinal fusion surgery.
"It fits," Woods said quietly, as if it had been so long he had almost forgotten the feel of this ceremony. After all these years — his last Masters win was 2005 — yes, it still does fit. In fact, almost nobody wears it better. This was his fifth Masters title, as Woods surpassed Arnold Palmer's four and moved in on Jack Nicklaus' six.
Beginning the day two shots back of Franceso Molinari, Woods cobbled together a steady, sturdy round of 2 under to finish 13 under for week and capture his first major title in 11 years. You think there was nothing left for Woods to accomplish? Well, until Sunday, Woods had never won a major while trailing entering the final round.
It sent an early-arriving Masters crowd - the start time was moved up five hours for fear of approaching storms - into paroxysms of joy not seen here since another 40-something, discounted champion named Nicklaus made his last championship stand in 1986.
And what of that third-round leader?
Well, somebody has to say it: Francesco Molinari sleeps with the fishes.
Molinari found the water twice on the back nine, and the double bogeys on the par-3 12th and par-5 15th both helped pave the way to Woods’ victory and brought a lot of other souls back into the fray.
“I think I made a few new fans today with those double bogeys,” Molinari joked, acknowledging the fanatical pro-Tiger bias on the grounds Sunday.
His had been a tournament marked by a refusal to err, going a 50-hole stretch without committing a bogey or worse. Until it all came unraveled — as it so often does — on the back nine on Sunday. One more case of the tournament turning with a ball dumped into Rae’s Creek on the par-3 12th. You better believe Woods knew what that moment meant, as he stepped up immediately after Molinari’s blunder and played safely to the middle of that same green.
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In a three-way tie for second, one shot back of Woods were Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele. At certain points on Sunday six players had a piece of the lead – throw in a Patrick Cantlay, too, briefly.
“There were so many different scenarios that could have transpired on that back nine. There were so many guys that had a chance to win,” Woods said.
But Woods dropped the hammer with birdies on both the back-nine par 5s. And when he cozied his tee shot to the par-3 16th to within four feet for an almost gimme birdie, he had built a two-shot cushion over the field. Game over, man. Koepka acknowledged as much when he backed off his tee shot on No. 17 to turn around and watch Woods’ ball land on 16 and let the roars wash over him.
“I thought it might go in for a second, it looked like it from my angle,” Koepka said. “But it's a good shot and that basically won him the tournament right there.”
“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.”
The Woods stride became even more resolute. And by No. 18, when his drive missed the fairway to the right, he could plot out a finishing bogey with a comfortable surety.
When he made the two-footer for that bogey, he let it all out. All those doubts he harbored when Woods told his peers at the 2017 Masters champions dinner that he didn’t know if he would ever play again were purged in one great bellow, both arms taut and raised in triumph.
And even the many applicants for the championship could not deny it was special being just along for this ride.
Said Molinari, due to go down as the lead failure of this Masters: “The way he was playing last year I think we all knew it was coming sooner or later. Maybe next time it will be better for me, but it was nice to be out with him. He played well, he hit the right shots at the right time and deserved to win.”
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Said the third member of the day’s final threesome, Tony Finau (who shot 72 and finished two back of Woods): “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.”
Woods’ victory at last year’s Tour Championship was riveting, and darn near razed East Lake. But his victory here meant exponentially more, because it was Augusta National and it was the Masters.
Act One of this singular golf life – The Rise and Fall of Tiger Woods — began right here when at 21 Woods lapped the Masters field and announced that no one could stop him from being the best ever other than himself. And darn if he didn’t discover personal and medical methods of sabotage.
The Next Act — The Rise Again, An Epic Comeback — really began here Sunday as he came off No. 18 with chants of “Tiger, Tiger, Tiger” serenading him as he lent long hugs to his mother and his two children, aged 10 and 11.
Woods recognized a very personal significance to the moment. “It’s come full circle,” he said. “My dad (who died in 2006) was here in ’97, and now I’m the dad.”
Daughter Sam and son Charlie are too young to have known their father as a champion. It was so important to Woods that he fill them in on what everyone else knew.
“They only knew that golf caused me pain,” Woods said.
Now there is just so much pleasure in the game again.