Tiger Woods comes home to Augusta

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 14: Tiger Woods of the United States looks on from the fifth green during the final round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 14, 2019 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 14: Tiger Woods of the United States looks on from the fifth green during the final round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 14, 2019 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) /

What we saw this weekend at Augusta was not simply a Tiger Woods regaining his form. It was a man finding his way back home.

Like millions, my wife and I were watching Tiger Woods make the turn at Augusta wondering, “What if?” Up to that moment, Francesco Molinari looked destined to win. Like his victory last year at Carnoustie, the Italian looked unflappable. Even some errant play was saved by an unshakable short game.

The cameras focused in tight on Tiger’s face as he surveyed the group ahead in the fairway. My wife casually said, “Tiger looks younger. Even compared to a few years ago.”

Indeed he did.

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The black cap, the red shirt, the black pants … and that look in his eyes. You know the one. All focus, no emotion. Sure, the hat hid a receding hairline and a few wrinkles were present around the eyes. But this looked like the old Big Cat that redefined a sport.

You could see his mind working like a golfing supercomputer. Calculating every breath of wind. Measuring every blade of grass. Judging every subtle break. For those of us who remember that Tiger Woods of the early 2000’s, it was as if an old friend, unseen in more than a decade, appeared happy and healthy upon our doorstep.

Jack Nicklaus famously said of Tiger Woods, “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.” If you are under the age of 35, you probably think this is just poetic puffery from a bygone era.

Today, you saw it with your own eyes.

The best leaderboard in recent Masters memory melted as Tiger stormed the back nine and – somehow – outdid his own legend. Dustin, Rickie, Brooks, Rahm, Francesco, the birdie machine known as Tony Finau, the reigning rookie of the year Xander, Bubba, Jason Day – a who’s who of current Champion golfers. They were all right there on the back nine. Each had a chance to win the 2019 Masters.

But there was a Tiger laying in wait.

The par-3 12th provided the opening. That’s when a collective, “Holy ____! This could happen.” shook the golf world. The methodical Molinari inexplicably put his tee ball into Raes Creek. Tiger landed his ball safely in the middle of the green. Then Finau found the creek. Molinari doubled. So did Finau. Tiger made par. And the game was on.

Birdies on the par-5s at 13 and 15 put Tiger in the lead, but it was the dagger at the par-3 16th that felt like the Big Cat’s jaws closing on the field. I’m not sure there would be a single Georgia pine still standing had Tiger’s glorious tee ball gone in the cup. The entire place would have self-combusted in ecstasy. Had it dropped for a one, it would have gone down as the greatest shot in golf history. As it was, the textbook two was the crowning shot of the round.

Sure, the fans were behind Tiger all day. But it felt like even the azaleas, creeks, and pines wanted him to win. As the final groups came in, it was if the course was casting away the challengers. Drives found the straw, approaches caught the sand, and putts slipped left or right at the hole. If destiny exists, we now may have proof of it.

Already, folks are wondering aloud where this falls in the pantheon of golf triumphs. Its freshness makes it harder to determine. One can see, however, that time will only burnish this victory. Like Jack at Augusta in 1986, Hogan at the US Open in 1950, Jones taking the Grand Slam in 1930, and Ouimet’s US Open win in 1913, Tiger’s victory at Augusta feels like it is among the greatest golf wins in history – if only because it was so unexpected.

We all know the story – as the Beatles sang, “It’s a long and winding road.” Multiple back surgeries, multiple knee surgeries, painkiller addiction, a painful and public divorce. The road back has been akin to the Bataan Death March.

Many took great pleasure in the karma of his downfall over the last ten years. Some saw his physical deterioration as a cruel, but just, countervail for his moral failings. The mob can be unforgiving, we know that.

It’s true, Tiger was never cuddly. He was a machine. We marveled at the cold precision of his game and cringed at the stories off the course of a prodigy who was loved by millions but liked by so few. He had hardly any close friends, he lived in a bubble, and he did much of it to himself. There aren’t many heroes for whom the pendulum of adoration doesn’t swing back over time.

That old Tiger Woods is gone now, a mirage in the rear view mirror.

In his place now stands a new Champion. Not so much a phoenix risen from the ashes as much as a drowning man breaking the surface before his breath runs out. He is now grateful and humbled by the gifts he’s both earned and been given. He is not the same mentally or physically, but he is somehow better than before. He is human. There may be no greater victory than that.

As friends and family surrounded him behind the 18th green, we saw Tiger realizing his potential not just as a golfer, but as a father, son, and man.

It’s not hard to imagine a young Tiger beating himself up about bogeying the 18th, failing to finish with a flourish. That golfer is gone now, replaced by a man who sees what’s truly important; the richness of family, the wealth of friendship, and the value of redemption – bogeys be damned.

dark. Next. The Masters: Tiger Woods completes comeback of a lifetime

And what a sight it was.