AUGUSTA, Ga. – The old Tiger Woods made a habit of rewriting record books. Sunday, the older Tiger Woods rewrote our memories at the Masters Tournament.
Golf’s greatest comeback story isn’t Ben Hogan anymore. At least, not for the current generation. Now, it’s Tiger Woods after he stunningly won his fifth Masters. Woods himself believed that he was done, and he said as much two years ago at the Masters champions dinner. Yet there he was last evening, wearing the familiar champion’s green jacket over his equally familiar throwback red mock turtleneck. Do those colors go together on Tiger? Yes on that.
The greatest Masters Tournament of our lifetimes isn’t Jack Nicklaus in 1986, not for this generation. Now it’s Tiger Woods in 2019. This is their Nicklaus moment. Sorry, Jack, but the kids today don’t know Jack.
The most memorable, most replayed Masters shot still will be Woods’ reverse-stop-and-drop chip-in at the 16th hole when he won in 2005.
But because the 2019 Masters is our new latest-greatest, we need a new Exhibit A. It’ll be his 8-iron shot at the par-3 16th that spun down the slope – not unlike that famous chip – and narrowly missed going into the cup for an ace. The ball stopped 3 feet away for the birdie that effectively clinched a fifth Masters title for Woods.
That stroke of genius, along with the putt that followed, was the tipping point of this Masters, and maybe of golf history, too (scores). Woods notched professional major championship No. 15, inching one closer to the Nicklaus mark of 18.
“I think 18 is a whole lot closer than people think,” said co-runner-up Brooks Koepka. “I don’t know what to say. He’s good, man.”
Sunday was the kind of day that you will tell your kids about, the kind of day that you will remember exactly where you were when it happened.
“I remember where I was,” Woods said jokingly.
It also might be the kind of day that your kids tell other kids about, especially for the Woods children: daughter Sam and son Charlie. “I’m pretty excited about Show ’n’ Tell Day,” Woods said with a big smile.
It was a funny line for the champ, even though his children probably are too old for that kind of thing. Sam is 11, and Charlie is 10. On the other hand, if Dad wants to bring his green jacket into class to show it off – yes on that, too!
Golf’s long-time observers have seen some big days. The Duel in the Sun, the Nicklaus-Tom Watson shootout in the 1977 British Open at Turnberry. The Massacre at Winged Foot, when Hale Irwin’s winning score in the 1974 U.S. Open was 7 over par. The Battle of Brookline, the 1999 Ryder Cup turnaround for the Americans.
What Woods did on the back nine here, memorably pulling out of a chaotic five-way tie for the lead with birdies at Nos. 13, 15 and 16, deserves an equally memorable title, too. I’ll leave that job for some savvy marketing agency and settle for the image of Woods walking to his ball short of the 18th green, knowing that he needed only a bogey to win. While trying to remain focused for a few brief seconds, he was having trouble keeping his emotions in check with the greatest victory of his career so agonizingly, achingly close.
Wait, I think I just did the marketing agency’s job. That’s the title: The Greatest Victory of Tiger’s Career.
Woods wouldn’t go that far when he was asked. “It would have to be right up there,” was all that he would concede.
His breakthrough 1997 Masters victory was breathtaking but completely without drama. He built a 12-stroke margin of victory and left Tom Kite to win the B Flight. The way he played was magnificent and eye-opening but from a dramatic standpoint, a snooze.
His 2000 U.S. Open victory at Pebble Beach was dazzling. Some call it the best golf ever played. He won by 15. No drama.
There was the thriller in San Diego in 2008, the U.S. Open that he won in a playoff over Rocco Mediate while competing on a broken leg, and he drained the best putt of his life on the 72nd hole to force the playoff. But, it was a duel with a guy named Rocco, not a guy named Jack or Tom or Ernie or Sergio.
This is the Best of Tiger because of what he went through – four back surgeries and a chaotic personal life – and the sheer number of star-studded contenders whom he beat. Koepka, Francesco Molinari, Tony Finau, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and the rest.
This is the Best of Tiger because it’s the first time he has come from behind to win a major championship. Can you believe that? Fourteen majors, all from the lead? Nicklaus was a great front-runner, but he had 19 runner-up finishes. Woods has had only seven. This easily could have been No. 8. Instead, with a few bobbles by the contenders and solid, smart positional golf down the stretch, it was Major No. 15.
This is the Best of Tiger because it closes the circle. In 1997, Woods walked off the green as a winner and cried on the shoulder of his father, Earl. Sunday, Woods walked off the green as a winner and celebrated – and maybe cried a little; it was hard to tell – on the shoulders of his children and his mom.
“My dad was there in ’97,” Woods said, “and now I’m the dad.”
Woods also hugged another 15 friends and associates on his walk from the 18th green to the clubhouse. This is the new Woods. He smiles. He hugs. He jokes with the media. He wins majors again.
Of course, he wasn’t smiling when he stalked off that 16th green with a two-shot lead. The old Tiger Stare and Downward Gaze was back. No one else in the world existed but him. He had unfinished business, such as squeezing a pair of drives into the last two fairways and making sure he didn’t hand the Greatest Victory of Tiger’s Career back to someone else. And he didn’t.
It was a day unlike any other in Masters history. One to savor and remember and talk about for years.
“It was just an amazing buzz to figure out what was going on,” Woods said. “It was, uh…” He paused to think. “I kinda liked it."
When it was over and Woods had won, a mass of spectators rolled like a wave down the hill from the 18th green, past the first tee and the corner of the clubhouse. The post-round ceremonies were canceled due to the same approaching bad weather that caused the leaders to tee off early, at 9:20 a.m. Everyone wanted to wait to see Woods win, and then everyone wanted to dash to their respective parking lots.
I was at the bottom of the hill when one guy, maybe around 30, came hurrying toward me. He was a stranger, but he stuck out his hand to shake mine as he passed. “Happy Masters Day!” he gushed.
It was, wasn’t it?
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle