Less than two years ago Tiger Woods was ranked outside the top 1,000 players in the world, wondering if he’d be able to walk without pain much less playing golf at a high level again.
On Sunday, more than a decade after his last major championship win in 2008 at the U.S. Open and 14 years after he donned the green jacket, Woods was back on top of the golfing world. His fifth green jacket and 15th major championship was the first of his career from behind the lead entering the final round, as he trailed Francesco Molinari by two entering Sunday.
Woods, Molinari, and Tony Finau teed off just after 9:00 a.m. ET, with tee times moved up due to weather expected to arrive in the afternoon. To start, it looked like we were going to watch a repeat of the Open Championship a year ago, with Molinari refusing to flinch, scrambling for pars and keeping the distance between he and Woods en route to a second major win.
However, after pars on the first six holes and extending his lead to three in the process, Molinari finally showed some cracks in the armor. He bogeyed No. 7, while Tiger birdied. He bounced back with a birdie at the eighth, matching Woods to stay one up.
At the 10th, Molinari made another miracle par save, while Woods bogeyed from the woods, again trailing by two. On the 11th tee, Molinari found the fairway while Woods, for the second straight day, sprayed his right into the patron walkway to the right of the trees. From there, he gave us our first glimpse at a vintage Tiger moment at Augusta, and placed the pressure firmly on his competitors again.
That shot was a reminder to Molinari, Finau, and the rest that he still had that magic in him. Staring down the 12th hole, golf’s greatest par 3, Molinari finally flinched, coming up short on the bank and rolling back into the water. Woods played it safe to the middle of the green, as Finau also dunked one in the water, and suddenly, the tournament was on. Both Molinari and Finau made double bogey, while Woods managed to two-putt for par, giving him a share of the lead for the first time all day.
Both Molinari and Woods birdied the 13th and parred the 14th, but on the par-5 15th, disaster struck again for Molinari. He blocked his drive right and overcooked the layup effort into the second cut. From there, he clipped a tree branch and had his ball drop into the middle of the pond short, effectively ending his championship hopes.
Woods found the green in two and coaxed his eagle putt within two feet and cleaned up for birdie, taking the outright lead for the first time in the tournament. Magic was in the air, as Tiger took to the 16th tee, leading by one and walking towards the traditional Sunday pin that gave him his most famous moment of his career. Woods flushed an 8-iron and let his favorite slope do its thing, nearly funneling it in for an ace.
Tiger cleaned up for birdie and a two-shot lead, and suddenly the green jacket was his for the taking. At 17, he made a picture perfect par — fairway, green, two-putt. On 18, his drive found the right side of the fairway, but he was forced to try and hit a big cut, overcooking it to the right of the green, leaving him needing a chip and two putts for the win.
He gave his par putt a great run, burning the right edge of the cup. After Molinari and Finau finished up, the stage was set and Woods swept in the short bogey roll for the win and one of the all-time moments in golf, celebrating a Masters win with his kids for the first time.
It’s hard to state how improbable it is to have Tiger back at this point or what it means for golf fans of a certain age to see him win another major. Once it was the expectation he’d cruise past Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major titles, but for years it seemed like it would never happen as his back deteriorated and his personal life imploded.
However, he managed to pull out the other side playing golf at the highest level against a crop of players that modeled their games after him. Woods once overpowered courses and demoralized his opponents. Now he faces players that learned to play that style, and on Sunday it was patience and veteran savvy that got Woods ahead of the pack at Augusta National. He didn’t press. He didn’t go flag hunting when it wasn’t appropriate. He hit greens and gave himself opportunities, pouncing when the openings presented themselves.
There were vintage Tiger moments and he still has the ability to visualize and pull off shots few can, but this wasn’t necessarily a turn back the clock performance for Woods. This is a Tiger that’s learned over the past year what’s needed to contend in 2019 and has regained the confidence that made him the best ever. He’s made changes to his game, but for the first time in a long time it seems like the mental edge is back, which is a terrifying proposition for the rest of the Tour but a delight for fans.