AUGUSTA, Ga. — They were lined up 15 deep around the first tee for the final group in the 83rd Masters, feeding ravenously off anticipation and the effervescence of Tiger Woods, wearing red, chomping gum and stalking another major title.
It was everything you would expect. Just not before breakfast. The hour, 9:20 a.m., is usually when patrons are still putting down their chairs at their favorite vantage point around Augusta National Golf Club. Instead, Woods, Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau, the tournament leaders, put their tees in the ground.
Sunday’s final round began under a sky of pallid gray that was threatening to give way to violent thunderstorms and even the possibility of a tornado. Because of the abysmal weather forecast, Masters officials abandoned tradition in favor of prudence and sent players off in threesomes starting at 7:30 a.m. using the first and 10th tees.
“This is the weirdest feeling,” Gary Woodland said as he looked up from hitting putts on the practice green.
Indeed, it was weird, starting with the short night for the leaders. There was no time to pace about, no slow-simmering pressure to endure. “Yeah, it was a bit of a funny turn-around,” said Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters winner. “Didn’t quite have the build up overnight.”
Amen Corner usually is quiet on Sunday morning. That’s because players don’t arrive there until the afternoon. This time, the final round really did begin (for some) on the back nine.
Among those who populated the 10th tee early was Rory McIlroy, who arrived in fine spirits despite having seen another Masters pass by without adding a green jacket to his wardrobe. He smiled as he emerged from the back for the clubhouse and soon was joking with Woodland after playfully rapping a putt at his feet.
A strong pre-tournament favorite, McIlroy was off at 7:52 a.m. at the tee No. 1 until Bobby Jones flipped the nines in 1935. It was at the 10th hole, you likely recall, where McIlroy’s dream of capturing the green jacket began to unravel in grotesque fashion in 2011, after he pull-hooked his tee shot so far left that they were shouting fore in South Carolina. This Sunday, he finished up about five hours later on the ninth hole, but he didn't seem to mind.
“Nice and quiet,” he remarked after closing with a stress-free 68.
That, too, was odd. But difficult to ignore. As the lead group made its way to the seventh hole, Sir Nick Faldo climbed down from the CBS tower at 18 and headed towards the clubhouse for a quick break. He was as close to running as rules would allow. He remarked on the way, “It’s a bit too quiet out here.”
Too quiet. Until Woods, minutes later, birdied No. 7 and Molinari, two strokes ahead to begin the day, bogeyed for a two-shot swing. Meanwhile, on the 10th green, there was three-time winner Phil Mickelson making double bogey and probably thankful that a crowd that only can be described as sparse occupied his gallery. Up ahead, another past Masters champion, Jordan Spieth, was playing the 12th hole, in the heart of Amen Corner.
“It was wild,” Spieth said of the placid mood, not recognizing his contrarianism.
It finally did get wild. When Woods nearly holed his 50-foot birdie putt from the back of the green at No. 9, the galleries was beginning to clear their throats. A man holding two beers said, “Dang, if I had three hands right now, I’d have three beers.” And, of course, the back nine produced vintage Masters drama as the leader board convulsed with no fewer than eight men vying for supremacy.
Woods didn’t begin the day as the favorite, going off at 3-1 odds behind Molinari, who beat him at last year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie. Coincidentally, in the threesome ahead was Brooks Koepka, who had held off Woods at the PGA Championship last August at Bellerive.
Jack Nicklaus similarly was stymied in majors later in his career by the persons of Tom Watson and Hal Sutton. After he won the 1980 U.S. Open and PGA Championship, the Golden Bear finished second to Watson in the 1981 Masters and ’82 U.S. Open, and was runner-up to Sutton in the ’83 PGA. Before his curtain call in the ’86 Masters, Nicklaus had finished in the top-25 in 13 of the previous 20 majors, with seven top-10s.
Woods, 43, wasn’t about to let history repeat.
Though he did copy Jack in one regard. At the par-3 16th, after finally nosing ahead of the field, Woods struck the most exquisite tee shot. His ball landed right of the pin, used the slope of the green, and skirted just past the cup. It was reminiscent of the 5-iron that the 46-year-old Bear nearly holed out with on the same green 33 years before.
“I can tell you that ’86 meant a lot to me,” Woods would say later, “because that was my first memory of the Masters.”
At the end, all that we had come to know became undone. When his short bogey putt dropped at 18, to secure his one-stroke victory and fifth green jacket, Woods unleashed a torrent of emotion. A primal yell, glistening eyes and tight, lingering hugs with his mother, two children and supporters. Later, in the interview room, the man with the cold stare and stoic demeanor was crying.
Truly a strange day. Strange and historic and surreal. And special.
But it was barely 2:30 p.m., one of the most epic Masters was over at a time when the leaders are usually still warming up and trying to keep down their lunches.
There was no green-jacket ceremony on the terrace putting green. Another tradition unlike any other eschewed because of the weather. The sun never appeared once, but at least the approaching storms held off.
And the clouds finally parted again for Tiger Woods.