A sports dynasty rekindled today as Tiger Woods breezed past third-round leader Francesco Molinari, then held off a Who’s Who of modern golf en route to his fifth Masters Championship at Augusta National Golf Club and 15th major golf championship overall.
Woods didn’t just defeat Dustin Johnson and Francesco Molinari; he defeated shame and humiliation. Woods didn’t just vanquish Brooks Koepka and Jason Day; he vanquished pain and self-doubt. Woods didn’t just triumph over Xander Schauffele and Tony Finau; he triumphed over age and medical science.
Never before had anyone ever come back from the severe back surgeries he had to endure to regain a sports crown in any sport. Never before had a sports icon fallen from grace with such Icarus-esque tragedy only to rise like a vengeful phoenix, burning everything else like dragon fire, yet himself remaining as tempered as Spanish steel. And only once before in Masters history, has such a joyous outpouring of love turned the usual roaring on the pines into a hurricane that shook the very trees to their foundations.
It wasn’t just redemption: it was a re-coronation, a restoration, and reclamation. Woods is our Once and Future King. And now even the Grand Slam is on the table.
The defining moment was the 8-iron on 16 that missed a hole-in-one by two inches and set up the birdie that gave him the outright lead. It recalled Jack Nicklaus’ same thunderbolt in 1986 that carried him to a sixth Green Jacket. That was the dagger; the most dangerous holes of Augusta National were behind him, and he could coast into Butler Cabin and another chapter of golf history.
Woods did have a little bit of help from fate…the Golf Gods…the weather…whatever you want to call what happened at the 12th hole, which once again proved decisive in the Masters. It’s the shortest hole on the golf course, and one of the shortest in all major championship golf, but once again it turned the tide of the tournament, a pint sized Titanic that sinks the scorecards of golf’s greatest names. Four contenders – Francesco Molinbari, Brooks Koepka, Webb Simpson, and Tony Finau – all rinsed their golf ball in Rae’s creek and took crippling double bogeys. Most critically, it knocked Molinari out of his the two-shot lead and vaulted Woods into a tie for the lead.
It proves, once again, an unshakable truth about the back nine on Sunday at the Masters: driest ball wins. Woods played another Nicklaus-like shot here – safely on the green between the bunkers. He took his two-putt, gained two shots on everyone else in contention, and the part of the golf course that he could attack was now in front of him.
That’s exactly what he did, what he planned to do, and what conventional wisdom says the winner must do: go as low as you can on 13-16. On Sunday, Woods played the easiest stretch of Augusta National in 3-under: three textbook birdies at 13, 15, and 16. In doing so, he even sounded like the Tiger of old, the confident, unflappable, indomitable Tiger no opponent could withstand.
“Whatever they do, I’ll birdie the same holes. I’ll make it moot.”
It’s an all time moment: his fifth Green jacket, (he trails only Jack). He’s now won the Masters in three different decades – 22 years between first win and last win, 14 years since his last Masters and 11 years since his last major.
Who can challenge him when he’s at his best? And he’s at his best right now. This week was Vintage Tiger: four rounds of 2-under par or better golf, including a scintillating 67 on Saturday. He birdied the par-5s on the back when he needed to, and he kept his golf ball dry when everyone else went for a swim.
Who else in sports history has been as dominant? The Steelers of the ‘70s and the Patriots of Belichick and Brady. At various times, the Boston Celtics and L.A. Lakers. The Soviet Red Army Hockey team. Secretariat. The Yankees of the ‘50s and ‘90s. But no one, not even Jack Nicklaus, was as dominant as Woods for as long as Woods has been and looks to be going forward.
Woods ability to cycle – to peak for the majors – is laser perfect. He stank up the joint against Phil in the made-for-TV nonsense, played poorly at the Ryder Cup, did little early in the season, but when majors came around, he peaked at the right time. It’s an uncanny knack, but one that all true greats in their sport have – ice water in their veins when the crucible burns its hottest.
And now that he has control of his driver, he’s going to bludgeon everyone to death with it, smiting them like Zeus.
“It the best I’ve felt with the driver in years,” he noted. “I’m able to shape shots both ways, both ends of the spectrum. Low cuts and high draws: I had control of my long game.”
The re-writing of golf history continues apace, with yet another chapter, and it’s a chapter that’s just beginning, because now the chase for Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships is back on. Woods already won U.S. Opens at Bethpage Black (site of the 2019 PGA Championship, just three weeks from now) and at Pebble Beach. He had T-6 and T-4 finishes when the Open returned to those courses in 2009 and 2010 respectively. You can bet Woods will be one of the best prepared. He always is. He’ll map the course backwards and look for the flat part of the greens to play to, giving him straight uphill putts. No one plans his round better and no one executes the plan as efficiently.
This week, he beat the best in the world when they were playing their best. He’s smarter and better prepared than everyone else: not three-putts, no penalty strokes, no mental lapses.
Moreover, like the old days, he’s hitting shots only he can hit. Unlike every other golfer on Earth, he doesn’t have a bad ball striking day. His gargantuan length and linebacker strength give him a huge advantage through the bag.
And he’s not human, he’s bionic. No one in medical history has come back from the procedures he had on his back. But like they said about the Six Million Dollar Man, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology….better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.” Woods said almost exactly the same thing in his media center interview.
“Guys that are especially on the Tour now, are training. They are getting bigger, stronger, faster, more athletic. They are recovering better. They are hitting the ball prodigious distances, and a little bit of that’s probably attributed to what I did,” Woods stated. “When I first turned pro, I was the only one in the gym, except Vijay. So it was just basically he and I for years, and now everyone trains. Everyone works on their bodies, besides their game.”
It is a tribute to his work ethic (he was in the gym at 5 a.m. Sunday morning and Tweeting about it…) but also to modern medicine. Too bad everybody can’t get such quality health care as our professional athletes can.
Like Nicklaus defined golf for a generation, Woods defines golf for this generation. What hope do Molinari, DJ and Koepka have? Woods’s adversaries are Nicklaus, Palmer, Hogan, and Young Tom Morris. It won’t be long before he’ll pass them all, ascending golf’s Everest, and looking out at everything below him, no more mountains to climb.
Everything in golf just changed again. It’s Tiger’s world again, the rest of us just live in it. Now let’s see if he gives us better things than he did the last time he held the throne. In that respect, his greatest contributions to the game may still lie in front of him, though the golf will still be spellbinding to watch.