Why Tiger Woods' 2019 Masters win meant so much to one writer, who was, admittedly, cheering from the pressbox
It’s often said that Tiger Woods inspired a generation of kids to get into golf, a fact confirmed by the numerous PGA Tour pros—including one of Tiger’s Sunday playing partners, Tony Finau—who point to Woods’ seminal performance at the 1997 Masters as their reason for playing the sport. Less talked about, though, is another group who has followed Woods into the game, and now literally follows him around courses all over the world: golf writers.
I am not Tiger Woods, like his famed Nike commercial states, but I am here because of Tiger Woods. Here covering golf, that is. Although my grandfather first got me interested in playing and watching the sport, Woods’ 12-shot romp at the 1997 Masters was the first time I remember screaming at the TV like I did during Knicks, Yankees, and Giants games. I’ve been hooked on fist pumps and Sunday red since. After graduating from Wake Forest, where the men’s golf team was my beat at the school paper for four years, my first job was a sports reporter at The Journal News in White Plains. There, I covered every high school sport imaginable but was always drawn to golf. And Tiger. The most exciting week of the year was getting to help out with our coverage of the Barclays at Westchester Country Club, even though Tiger had stopped playing in the event by then because he didn’t particularly like the classic Walter Travis design. But in 2006, I got to attend my first major championship for work when Winged Foot hosted the U.S. Open—and I got my first taste of seeing Tiger in person.
I’ll never forget standing on the range (probably waiting to ask a player what local restaurants they like) when I sensed a buzz of part awe, part adoration. I turned just as Woods walked right in front of me with that patented steely glare that adorned my bedroom wall in that popular “The Eyes Have It” Nike poster. I actually still have the poster, but my wife won’t let me put it up on any of our walls. Although Woods wound up missing his first cut at a major that week, it was an exhilarating experience. I tell you all this because, at times, I’ll admit, as my colleagues know, it’s still difficult to suppress the Tiger Woods supporter inside me. It became even tougher as Tiger closed in on a long-awaited—for him, and yes, for fans like me—15th major title at the 2019 Masters.
By Sunday afternoon, I felt a similar buzz to 2006, only amplified by tens of thousands of fans and 10-plus years of suddenly forgotten frustration as Woods made his way from the 18th green to the Augusta National clubhouse to sign his scorecard after capping one of the most improbable and incredible wins in any sport’s history. I also couldn’t help but feel a touch of irony. It’s possible that outside of Tiger’s inner circle, I’ve watched more shots of his than anyone. Not in person, but on TVs going back to the boxy 27-inch Sharp in my parents’ den in 1997. And yet, after watching his tee shot on 17 on a big screen in the media center and actually running out to the course (I got scolded by three different guards), I didn’t see any of Tiger’s final eight strokes. Not even a glimpse.
Instead, I was stuck amid a Pacific Ocean-sized sea of patrons, virtually all of whom were rooting for Woods and, unlike me, had no reason to be shy in their support. There was plenty of cheering from these fervent fans, but there was also plenty of red in the form of t-shirts, polos and even sundresses. “At least we’re close!” one man wearing a TW cap exclaimed. True, but I’d feel a lot better if I knew what the heck was going on. Then there was movement up by the big scoreboard. “OK, come on!” someone else shouted, but the interminable wait continued as the man updating the numbers first added Francesco Molinari’s position after 17. Then Tony Finau’s. And then, finally, Tiger’s. A red 14 appeared and you would have thought the crowd had just witnessed the first-ever hole-in-one on the 465-yard par 4.
My stomach was still churning, but I felt a little better. I could tell from the crowd that Brooks Koepka had missed his birdie putt on 18 (Sorry, Brooks, but even your girlfriend was probably rooting for Tiger), and the scoreboard confirmed that moments later. Being close was nice, but now I needed to find a place where I could actually see … something. After clawing through the crowd, I found some space as I scampered back toward the clubhouse and eventually found my way into an area by the club’s big oak tree that I could access with my media pass (there’s no inside-the-ropes access at the Masters). A few yards away five hours before, a security guard—not the one who had mistakenly clipped Tiger's ankle in the mud on Friday—took a deep breath and said, “Let’s go,” as Woods walked to the first tee. Then I waited for one final roar, which came a few minutes later. Only this one didn’t stop. And it got louder as Woods got closer until I finally saw him get congratulated by past champs and the day’s foes like Koepka and Xander Schauffele, before disappearing to sign his scorecard. I didn’t cheer, I didn’t clap and I didn’t cry, even though, full disclosure, I had stuffed some tissues in my pocket just in case. It would be until much later when I finally found out how those final two holes unfolded ("Wait, he bogeyed 18?!” I remarked as I sat down for Woods’ winning press conference), but that's probably for the best. I would have been a sobbing mess.
I can’t help it, although I’m usually cool in the media center and on the course. In fact, one of our photographers, J.D. Cuban captured a photo of Tiger holing a bunker shot to end his second round at the 2012 British Open and I’m perfectly calm in the background (Not sure what I was thinking with that green shirt).
Talk about discipline. I think J.D. also shot this beauty that I had mounted by my desk in our old office.
So yes, there were some subtle fist pumps and hushed “Let’s go”s coming from me and a few others in the back row of the media center during the final round, but nothing to draw the ire of colleague John Feinstein, who stood up and scolded a group on the right side of the room for cheering at one point. Most won't admit it, but everyone in that room was rooting for Woods on Sunday. Well, other than John. Perhaps a few people were crossing the line of professionalism, but the late and legendary Dan Jenkins said it was OK to root for the best story. And especially these days, Tiger is always the best story. I know Jenkins and Woods never had a warm and fuzzy relationship, but I’d like to think that Dan’s spirit was pulling for Tiger from the seat reserved in his honor two rows in front of me.
Dan certainly was if he watched over the annual Golf Writer Association of America dinner that Wednesday. With all due respect to all the presenters and winners, Tiger’s five-minute acceptance speech for the Ben Hogan Award had been the highlight of the night—and the latest example of a changed and more gracious man. Woods sounded so sincere thanking writers for all the nice things we've written that I felt bad about making fun of his jeans a few years ago (Even though, he deserved it). He also appeared a humbled man, who had gone nearly 11 years without winning a major. It had been so long that I had watched his last such triumph, his epic playoff victory at the 2008 U.S. Open, in a different parents’ den, and on a slightly larger TV than for that 1997 win. I was still living at home then and still working at The Journal News. In fact, my boss (rightly) hadn’t liked my “attitude” that day when I was sent out to cover the return of a high school baseball team from the state championship in the middle of that 18-hole playoff. Fortunately, I wrote fast enough to get home for the finish. A huge photo I snagged from the old Golf Digest office of his iconic putt to force that playoff hangs in my home. Well, in the basement, thanks to a marital compromise.
And in that decade-plus span since, the Masters has marked time for me as much as anything. In 2009, thanks to my grandfather’s long-held—but often scalped—weekly badges, I attended my last golf tournament as strictly a fan (At least, until Golf Digest pushes me out the door). While watching/working from the Golf Digest office on a Masters Thursday two years later, I got the devastating call from my mom that our beloved Poppa Myers had passed away. Seven years after that, my wife and I brought our first and only child home from the hospital on Masters Friday. And now the following year … this? Really? A 43-year-old with a fused back slipping the green jacket on? Suddenly, this 37-year-old with a fixed mortgage didn't feel so ancient.
When I got back to the media center last Sunday, the golf fan in me was ebullient, but admittedly, the golf writer in me was ill-prepared. How do you begin to put something this big into words? Fortunately, we had pressroom legends like Dave Kindred and Feinstein to do that, while I attacked narrower, lighter topics like Tiger’s gum, Tiger’s green jacket plans and Tiger’s new presser terms (“Cush” is an instant classic). Even on Twitter, I found myself just retweeting what everyone else was saying. The more I read, the more it sunk in. Previously, I’d witnessed more Woods WDs than wins in person. And a couple of weeks before that Champions Dinner two years ago when Woods told others he was “done,” I’d seen the broken-down star gingerly walk into a Manhattan Barnes & Noble for a book signing. At that point, Tiger becoming a ceremonial golfer seemed to be a stretch. A return to being a major champion? Unfathomable. So much so that it led to me doing a song parody debating Tiger's "Chances" before the tournament:
And like a kid trying a reverse-jinx to help his team win, it worked. You're welcome, Tiger.
A twice-delayed flight led to a changed flight and a lot longer trip home on Monday than anticipated. Not that any extended brush with the clouds could have knocked me off cloud nine. With no one in the house upon arriving and still itching to really see how Sunday’s miracle unfolded, I dropped my bags at the door and immediately made my way to the TV. No drinks, no snacks, just a remote in hand, I went through the back nine on DVR, fast-forwarding through the filler until I got to Tiger’s tap-in on 18. “Many thought we’d never see this again, but here it is,” Jim Nantz said. “The return to glory!” Chills.
Then the CBS announcer didn’t speak for the next two-and-a-half minutes, allowing instead for all those patrons to be heard as Tiger hugged his caddie, then his son, then his mom, then his daughter. More chills. I badly want my own daughter to experience some of the thrills Tiger has given me, so I can only imagine what Woods felt winning in front of his own family. After more hugs and "We did it!"s with the rest of his inner circle, the now 15-time major champ walked and “Woo!”ed his way through a throng of fans, high-fiving several along the way, including nearly taking off the hand of a man wearing a red shirt. "That will be the greatest scene in golf forever,” Nick Faldo remarked.
It’s certainly the most memorable scene I’ve ever been a part of even if I didn't have the best vantage point. And I'm so thankful to have been there—mostly as a golf writer, but also as that Tiger fan who was inspired by that 12-shot romp 22 years ago. After following his career both from afar and up close all that time, I waited 24 more hours to finally, fully cheer Woods winning a 15th major. And I'll be the first to admit, I needed those tissues.