Two years after the golfing world had written him off, Tiger Woods scripts his greatest comeback yet.
At the 14th hole at Augusta, playing his opening round at the 2019 Masters Tournament, Tiger Woods found himself under the trees on the left after an errant drive. With no direct line to the green, Woods produced a high, sweeping draw that threaded its way out of trouble, and then swung back toward the green before rolling on to the putting surface. He followed that up with yet another unlikely shot—an up-and-down slider from 25 feet—to go two-under par and seize an early share of the lead. The momentousness of that moment wasn’t lost on anyone, let alone the gallery (patrons in Augusta lingo) that burst into a roar that echoed across the golf course. Two years after being undone by a bad back, and struggling to walk, let alone play golf, Woods—after a radical ‘spinal fusion’ surgery and a brand new golf swing—was back in contention at The Masters.
Even on the first day of play, the signs were ominous. Woods signed off for a two-under 70—the score he’s shot each of the four times that he’s won this tournament in the past.
Averaging over 300 yards off the tee, holing impossibly long putts, and working the ball in both directions, Woods didn’t just look in control: he looked in complete command of his game. That was reaffirmed in round two when the four-time Masters Champion rolled in a 37-footer for birdie on the 10th hole; effected an escape from the pines on the 14th for the second day in a row, and curled in a stunner from 28 feet for birdie on the 15th hole. Even though he missed an easy birdie on the last (which would have tied him for the lead at 7-under par), the four-under-par 68 put Woods one shot back of the leaders going into the weekend.
A couple of years back, videos of Woods flubbing chips like an amateur had gone viral. For those of us who watched his sublime effort from off the green on the 15th hole on the third day, it was clear that those demons had been put to rest. Woods drained the tap-in to go to 11-under and take a share of the lead. With a 67, five-under on day three, Woods was very much in the hunt.
In his previous four triumphs here, Woods has had the 54-hole lead to himself going into the final day’s play. This year, not only did he trail Francesco Molinari by two shots, but was tied with long-hitting Brooks Koepka and Tony Finau. Koepka, a big-stage specialist, has won three of the last seven Majors, while reigning Open Champion, Molinari, successfully fended off Woods at the Open Championship. The 36-year-old’s game is based on precision and consistency and the Italian is hard to catch when his putter gets going.
Molinari shot a six-under 66 on Saturday to go into the final day with sole possession of the lead at 13-under, with Woods and Finau two shots back. Molinari has never been reticent about his admiration for Woods and the Italian’s quest to win the Open Championship and the Masters consecutively hasn’t been accomplished in 17 years. The last man to do it? Tiger Woods in 2001.
Molinari started his final round in assured fashion: with sublime rhythm and stoic temperament, he refused to be drawn out of his percentage-play strategy, despite being paired with an aggressive Woods and long-hitting Tony Finau. Molinari’s Masters nightmare began at the eighth hole, where he dropped a stroke—astoundingly, his first bogey in 50 holes. Things continued downhill on the par-3 13th when an eight-iron rolled back down the bank and into the water, dropping Molinari into a share of the lead with Woods, Molinari, Koepka, and Finau at 12-under.
The bitter end came on the 15th hole when Molinari found the water yet again—the ensuing double bogey dropped him out of contention, while Tiger birdied to take sole possession of the lead. Yet another birdie on the 16th hole set up a two-shot cushion for Woods that a closing bogey could not deflate. And just like that, 14 years after his last victory at Augusta, and 11 years from his last Major triumph, 43-year-old Tiger Woods had won the Masters Tournament. Wood’s tally of 22 birdies in the week was second best in the field and he was second to none in driving accuracy and avoiding big numbers on the scorecard.
It’s hard to describe the accomplishments of individuals for whom there are no models in the order of people amongst whom they rank. Woods not only stands head-and shoulders above his peers, but I’m hard pressed to find a comparable figure across eras.
Only Jack Nicklaus, with his six Green Jackets and 18 Major victories, comes close. But Wood’s otherworldly abilities to overcome professional, personal, and physical setbacks are unrivalled. Along the way he’s redefined the way the game is played, influenced an entire generation of young players, taken the game to new audiences and single-handedly driven the growth of the sport. Until last Sunday, your columnist used to refer to him as the pre-eminent player of our generation. I stand corrected: 43-year-old Tiger Woods is the greatest player in the history of the game. And he’s not done yet.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game