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Tiger Takes the Fifth in Augusta
Tiger shows his stripes as he wins his first Major in over 10 years
By Darren Kilfara
And so on the 14th of April, in the year of our Lord 2019, the golf world once again centers entirely around Tiger Woods.
But then, when in the past two decades has it not?
The Big Cat has dominated 21st Century professional golf in every sense. From his triumphal US Open coronation at Pebble Beach in 2000 to his gimpy, gutsy playoff win at Torrey Pines eight years later, Tiger won 12 of the 33 majors on offer; Phil Mickelson (3) and Retief Goosen (2) were the only other men in that span to win more than one. Then came the literal and figurative car crash, and his personal wilderness, and parity reigned on the PGA Tour while television ratings fell and the golf-watching public waited for Tiger to be Tiger again. Sure, we still had Phil, and along came Rory and Bubba and Dustin and Jordan, and Brooks Koepka somehow won three majors in 14 months…but none of these guys were Tiger, and everyone knew it.
So we all waited. Tiger won three tournaments in 2012 and five in 2013, but despite three major Top 10s within that revival period, we knew he wasn’t quite the old Tiger. And then injuries forced lengthy absences, and along the way Tiger briefly forgot how to chip and pitch, and then he barely remembered how to putt. And deep down in places we don’t talk about at parties, we all somehow understood Tiger would never be TIGER again. He still mattered more than everyone else on Tour, but because of who he once was, not for who he had become.
But then Tiger shot a final-round 64 in the PGA at Bellerive last year to finish second, and then he won the Tour Championship…over a 30-man field, yes, but after a six-year victory drought, Tiger was back, sort of. Kind of. This year he’d looked vaguely competitive, with a backdoor WGC Top 10 in Mexico and a round-of-16 WGC Match Play win over McIlroy…after which he gacked a four-footer on the 18th green to lose his quarterfinal to the immortal Lucas Bjerregaard. Was a fifth Masters win for Tiger really on the cards?
Well, yes – yes it was. Everyone will compare Tiger’s 2019 Masters with the 1986 Masters of Jack Nicklaus for all of the obvious reasons, but here’s the less obvious yet more compelling comparison: both tournaments represent the apotheosis of their two major championship careers. For two-and-a-half decades, Nicklaus traded haymakers with legendary foes from Hogan (in the 1960 US Open) to Palmer and Player and Trevino and Watson – and then in 1986 he somehow absorbed the best blows from a new generation of heroes, from Ballesteros and Kite and Norman, and had just enough left in his tank to play the most thrilling back nine in the history of golf. The 1986 Masters was Jack’s eighth major win in which he trailed after 54 holes; it was an extreme version of the drama he so often fashioned.
Tiger Woods won the 2019 Masters in no small measure because his opponents wilted before him, as they so often had in his past. Although this was Tiger’s first major win in which he trailed after 54 holes, the threat of thunderstorms meant the final round started on Sunday morning in threesomes, which meant Tiger got to play in the final group. He only played a handful of brilliant shots on Sunday, including an approach to the par-3 16th which stopped almost exactly where Jack’s approach finished 33 years earlier. But he was smart, he was consistent, and when the golf course was repeatedly kind to him – most memorably off the 13th tee, when a tree somehow propelled his drive forward to the fairway and away from Rae’s Creek – he always capitalized on his good fortune.
Tiger bent the field as well as the trees to his will. Excluding Tiger, Sunday’s final three threesomes were collectively only five under par, on a damp day when the course possessed no fire and very little wind – and Xander Schauffele represented four of those five shots under par, but he started the day five shots off the lead. Francesco Molinari, the reigning Open Champion and hitherto a cold-hearted Italian assassin, twice hit shots on the final nine which now sleep with the fishes. When Finau and Koepka and Poulter and Schauffele and Cantlay and Day and Fowler and Bubba and DJ flew too close to the sun, their wings melted in the mental heat of a Masters Sunday, while Tiger’s kept flapping until he only needed to bogey the final hole to win. At his peak, Tiger always mind-melted his opposition. Apparently, he still can.
Jack and Tiger are now the two oldest golfers to win The Masters. Going forward, I don’t know if Tiger will win more majors, but I now know that he can win them – we all do. And lest we forget, the PGA in May (Bethpage Black) and the US Open in June (Pebble Beach) are at courses where Tiger has already won majors.
Golf just got a lot more interesting again, didn’t it?
Darren Kilfara formerly wrote for Golf Digest magazine and is the author of A Golfer’s Education, a memoir of his junior year abroad as a student-golfer at the University of St. Andrews, and Do You Want Total War?, a novel about how people study and experience history.