AUGUSTA, Georgia - A ball rolled down a slope on the 16th green of Augusta National during the final round of the Masters as one did 14 years ago, the golfer who hit it urging it forward like a kid hurrying up Christmas morning. Tiger Woods’ ball didn’t drop into the cup Sunday as it did back in 2005 – a highlight moment in a lifetime packed with them – but he didn’t need such an amazing stroke this time.
The miracle was in the man himself – where he had been and what he was accomplishing.
Just two years after he thought his career could be over because of a serious back condition, and with a new wave of golfers giving him their best shot during a wild, tightly contested final round of the 83rd Masters Tournament, Woods proved he still has what it takes to win when it matters most.
"There were so many different scenarios that could have transpired on that back nine," said Woods who won a major for the first time when trailing through 54 holes. "There were so many guys that had a chance to win. Leader board was absolutely packed and everyone was playing well. You couldn't have had more drama than we all had out there. Now you know why I’m balding. This stuff is hard."
At the conclusion of a closing 18 holes played hours earlier than usual to beat expected thunderstorms, there was a weather warning on the leader boards, but the Tiger watch was over.
Woods was back in a major way, winning his first Masters in 14 years and fifth over all, surpassing Gary Player for the largest gap between titles. It was his first major championship since the 2008 U.S. Open.
With a closing 70, Woods finished at 13-under 275, one stroke ahead of Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele and Brooks Koepka. Four others – Jason Day, Webb Simpson, Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau – finished at 277.
After he tapped in for a bogey on No. 18, Woods yelled, raised his arms skyward and walked triumphantly off the green, completing a major victory many thought might not ever occur. Twenty-two years after receiving a bear hug from his father, Earl, Tiger embraced his children, son Charlie, 10, and daughter Sam, 11, his mother Tida, and his girlfriend Erica Herman.
Woods’ children had been at Carnoustie in Scotland last summer when Woods contended on the final day, taking the lead on the 10th hole but eventually falling back and losing to Molinari.
"To have both Sam and Charlie here, they were there at the British Open last year when I had the lead on that back nine, and I made a few mistakes, cost myself a chance to win the Open title," Woods said. "I wasn't going to let that happen to them twice. And so for them to see what it’s like to have their dad win a major championship, I hope that’s something they will never forget."
Woods had come back from spinal fusion surgery to win the Tour Championship last fall, but succeeding at a major was the ultimate measuring stick for his comeback. Contending at the Open and the PGA Championship was crucial in his belief that he could break through.
At 43 years old, Woods is the second-oldest to win the Masters, after Jack Nicklaus, who was 46 when he captured his sixth Green Jacket in 1986. On a cloudy day that contrasted with the bright blue skies under which Nicklaus won 33 years ago, there were echoes of that dramatic occasion when the Golden Bear turned back a leader board stacked with talent younger than he was.
Nicklaus, too, broke an 11-year drought at Augusta National. In winning his 15th career major title, and pulling to within three of Nicklaus’ record total, Woods defeated a crowded cast. As the final threesome of Woods, Molinari and Finau stood in the 15th fairway, there was a five-way tie for the lead among Woods, Molinari, Koepka, Johnson and Schauffele.
"That was probably the coolest back nine in a major championship I’ve ever been a part of," said Koepka, who was going for his fourth major victory in his last seven starts. "I don’t know how it looked on TV, but it was amazing to be a part of. It was quite fun. And to see Tiger – what he did down the stretch was impressive. We already knew he was back, but I think he put the exclamation point on it."
What Woods did down the stretch was minimize his mistakes in the crafty manner of a veteran who had been down this road before. That patience – Woods’ deficit to Molinari had gone from two at the start the day to three after a bogey on No. 5, his nemesis all week – paid dividends and, combined with crucial errors by others, made the difference.
Molinari, Koepka, Finau and Ian Poulter each found Rae’s Creek at the par-3 12th hole, making costly double bogeys. "The mistake Francesco made there let a lot of guys back into the Tournament, myself included," Woods said.
Woods played conservatively, hitting a 9-iron to the left-center of the green and made a handy par. Two-putt birdies at Nos. 13 and 15 put Woods one shot ahead as he came to the 16th. Molinari, bidding to become the first golfer from Italy to win the Masters, found the water with his third shot at 15 and double bogeyed.
Woods’ 8-iron at the par-3 16th hit in the right-center of the green, but rolled down the ridge to four feet from the cup – almost the very spot where Nicklaus’ tee shot came to rest in 1986 to continue his historic Sunday charge. Woods’ short birdie putt gave him a two-stroke cushion going to No. 17.
"I think he doubted he’d ever play golf again," said Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava. "Once he got back and feeling good last year, contending in two majors, I always thought he felt it was a possibility. Last year was like, let’s play some golf, get some reps in; let’s build up and win a tournament. And this year it was, let’s play a little less. I've already won that tournament now; I know I can do that. The next step is winning a major."
Woods, dressed in his trademark Sunday red and black, emphatically showed he was up to the task, achieving something not only for himself but his kids.
"I think the kids are starting to understand how much this game means to me, and some of the things I've done in the game," Woods said. "Prior to coming back, they only knew that golf caused me a lot of pain. If I tried to swing a club I would be on the ground and I struggled for years, and that's basically all they remember. Luckily I've had the procedure where that’s no longer the case and I can do this again. We’re creating new memories for them, and it’s just very special."
A man who had difficulty walking not that long ago now was walking on air, having gifted something to the game, too, a present long in the making.