AUGUSTA, Ga. — At 1:40 p.m. on a rainy Sunday afternoon at Augusta National Golf Club, Tiger Woods became Tiger Woods again.
No fireworks went off and no confetti descended from the sky. Two months shy of 11 years after his last major win, Woods took the outright lead in the final round of the Masters by tapping in an 18-inch birdie putt on the 15th hole.
Perhaps to acknowledge the fact that 43-year-old Tiger Woods is a long way—in more ways than one—from the 32-year-old Tiger Woods who won the U.S. Open on a broken leg for his 14th major victory, the short putt did a 360 around the hole before dropping in.
It didn’t matter.
No one, including Woods, is going to tell you that the Woods who won his fifth Masters and 15th major title on Sunday is anywhere close to the Woods who won his fourth Masters here 14 years ago, or the Woods who won that U.S. Open at Torrey Pines for major No. 14.
That doesn’t matter, either.
And even though there are already those screeching that Woods’ victory completes the greatest comeback in the history of sports—it’s not, think Ben Hogan among others—it is enough to say that Woods’ victory completes a remarkable comeback after the battles he has gone through with his body and his psyche in recent years.
Woods did something Sunday he had never done before in his extraordinary career—he came from behind to win a major in the final round. He did so by shooting a solid, grinding 70, not spectacular but plenty good enough when third-round leader Francesco Molinari—who had gone 49 holes without a bogey dating to Thursday’s first round—came apart with two awful mistakes, finding the water at both 12 and 15, making double-bogeys that turned what had once been a three-shot lead into a final round 74 and a T-5 finish.
Others made runs on Sunday, but Woods was resolute. There were no fist-pumping bombs, but he didn’t need them. After bogeying the 10th, he played mistake-free golf the rest of the way, making two-putt birdies at 13 and 15, then hitting his tee shot to five-feet at 16 for his sixth birdie of the day.
His bogey at 18, was—more or less planned—he wanted to make certain he would make no more than 5 and played the hole very carefully.
The birdie at 16 had given him a two-shot lead, and there was no way he was going to spit the bit on the last two holes (a forgotten part of his eventual 2005 Masters victory) with another green jacket awaiting him. At that moment, the only thing that could stop him were the thunderstorms that were closing in on the golf course.
Just as Woods’ return to prominence last year made the golf world happy—earlier in the week, Woods spoke eloquently as he received the Ben Hogan Award, given by the Golf Writers Association of America to the player who has overcome a physical handicap or serious injury to remain active in golf—his finally winning a 15th major will make those who follow the sport ecstatic.
There was, quite literally, cheering in the media building as Woods took control of the tournament. The TV networks, whose ratings double when Woods is on a leader board, will be ecstatic. Many—if not most—golf fans and certainly a vast majority watching in person Sunday, love the fact that Woods is back.
And why not?
At his best, Woods was the most dominant and dynamic player in the history of the game. He had won 14 majors and 79 tournaments before he became a non-stop tabloid headline after a car accident led to revelations that he had been a serial adulterer.
Then came the injuries—back problems, knee problems and the various swing changes and swing coaches. Until last September, when he won the Tour Championship, Woods had gone more than five years without winning a tournament of any kind.
But the fusion surgery he had in 2017 finally solved his back problems and he began to play well again in 2018. Of course, every time he contended anywhere, his media minions screamed, "He’s back!"
He wasn’t then, and he would be the first to tell you that. Then, after missing the cut comfortably in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock in June, he briefly held the lead on Sunday at the Open Championship before fading on the back nine to a tie for sixth. The winner that day was Molinari.
Three weeks later, in the final round of the PGA, he shot a final-round 64, but came up two shots shy of catching Brooks Koepka. His win at the Tour Championship was treated as if it WAS a major victory. Woods was so drained by the experience that he played horribly in the Ryder Cup a week later and went 0-4.
There are no qualifiers attached to this victory. Woods was resolute throughout the week—trailing by three after the first round; one after the second and two after the third.
In a sense, his finishing bogey at 18 was the perfect finish. With a two-shot lead, Woods didn’t need to do anything risky and he didn’t, although he clearly wanted to make his 10-foot par putt.
Almost 11 years after major No. 14, major No. 15 was a tap-in.
The Tiger Woods who accepted the green jacket from last year’s champion, Patrick Reed is very different from the one who let then-nemesis Phil Mickelson slip the jacket onto his shoulders in 2005.
He has more children—two—and considerably less hair. More important perhaps, this Tiger Woods enjoyed this victory far more than the 14 that came before.
In the past, as he piled up major titles—14 in 11-year-plus, he EXPECTED to win. There were a few minutes of happiness and then it was on to the next thing.
After his victory in the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black in 2002—the site of the next major, May’s PGA Championship—Woods’ victory speech was short and sweet.
With his arm around then-girlfriend Elin Nordegren, he said, “I’m going to go have a couple of beers, kick back for a couple days and then get ready for Muirfield.” That was the site of that year’s Open Championship.
He will do a lot more than have a couple of beers to celebrate this victory.
The joy on his face after he tapped in the final putt was evidence of how much Woods has changed since his last major win. The host of players who waited for him in the scoring area to congratulate him as he came off the 18th green was another sign of how much he has changed.
Woods’ relationship with his fellow players was always distant. That began to change when he was a vice-captain for the 2016 Ryder Cup team. A reticent Ryder Cup player in the past, Woods threw himself into the task of trying to help captain Davis Love III make captains picks and formulate lineups.
One of the players he was assigned to work with during the week of the event was Reed. Which was why, when Reed presented him with the green jacket Sunday, the warmth and the hug were genuine.
In his victory press conference Woods used words like, “blessed,” “fortunate,” “lucky,” and “amazing.” Those words were almost never a part of his vocabulary in the past.
He was funny—even self-deprecating. Talking about what the back nine leaderboard, which included five players tied for the lead at one point, he shook his head and said, “No wonder I’m balding.”
He began by saying, “This is unreal to be honest with you.”
Woods never considered any of his first 79 victories unreal. They were what was supposed to happen.
Woods is not—and never will be—the player who completely dominated the sport beginning with his 12-shot victory here in 1997 and continuing through his 2008 win at Torrey Pines. He averaged 294.5 yards off the tee this week—44th in the field in driving distance. He didn’t make a single eagle—or a single double-bogey.
The most iconic athletes figure out how to win when they’ve lost their fastball. Woods didn’t just lose his fastball, he completely lost the ability to play the game. Talking about his kids on Sunday, he said, “To them, golf was just something that caused me a lot of pain.”
Not anymore. Sunday, Woods came all the way back. Last year, he was good—at times very good. Sunday, 22 years after he first became a one-name star, he became great again.
As a golfer, this may not have been the transcendent player of old. But this was a much improved person—one who, perhaps for the first time—truly appreciated the greatness of Tiger Woods.