AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods was striding down Augusta’s 15th fairway Sunday, his eyes focused squarely on the birdie opportunity awaiting him on the green ahead, his ears in tune with the signature sounds of the golf course, roars or groans that would help him keep track of the shared grip he held on the Masters leaderboard. All around him the patrons followed, filling the gaps in layers of humanity, straining and craning their necks at his every move, hoping, wondering, believing they were on the ground floor of history, one laid in Georgia pine needles.
There, in all his red-shirted, fist-pumping glory was the man they thought would never win a major again. But there, with all his experience, guile and skill, was the man moving inexorably toward a fifth Masters title, morphing from a simple old Tiger to the Tiger of old with every swing.
He would get there all right, walking himself into a scene three holes later he never thought would be his again, walls of patrons around the 18th green going dozens deep in every direction he could see, camping out in the open spaces just to get a glimpse of his finish, all of them waiting to explode with him as he drained a final tap-in putt, many of them moved to tears of their own as they watched him thrust his arms to the sky in triumph and then throw them around his two children in joy. The unmistakable symmetry to Tiger’s first Masters win in 1997, when the final putt was capped by a tearful embrace with his late father Earl, was both intimately personal and movingly universal, channeling one of sports’ most powerful connections, that between father and son, but even more, how the bonds of family hold us all together.
“It means the world to me. Their love and their support, I just can’t say enough how much that meant to me throughout my struggles when I really just had a hard time moving around,” Woods said, remembering the dark days before back surgery gave him a second lease on life. “Just their infectiousness of happiness; you know, I was going through a tough time physically. There was a lot of times when I really couldn’t move, and so that in itself is difficult. But just to have them there, and then now to have them see their Pops win, just like my Pops saw me win here, it’s pretty special.”
But first, he had to make it happen. He had to get through that hole on 15, through that last crazy corner of the beautiful course that is as much a player in this game as the golfers are, teasing them with its familiarity, humbling them with its difficulty, cajoling them into the greatest and worst shots of their lives. As much as Woods had just used his experience through the famous turn at Amen Corner, saving par on 11 after a terrible tee shot, the only one of his threesome not to drop a drive at No. 12 into the water of Rae’s Creek, and finishing a birdie on the par 5 13th, the work was not done yet. As much as the patrons pulling up in waves behind him wanted to turn this into a coronation, it was not time yet.
“I couldn’t guess who’s going to win right now — there are so many great golfers playing great golf,” one observer is saying as Tiger strolls by on 15, wearing a dark golden cap with an embroidered bear emblem atop a sun-kissed face. “It’s pretty exciting.”
He would know. This was Jack Nicklaus II standing among the crowds in Tiger’s sprawling gallery, a man who was once was part of the most memorable Masters of them all, caddying for the Golden Bear himself, when his father Jack, then 46 years old, won the last of his six green jackets in 1986. And as he watched the golfer who set his own career destination as one major past the 18 all-time won by his dad, he couldn’t help but recognize a similar energy gripping the humid Augusta air. Standing along the ropes of the nearby 17th fairway and flanked by two grown daughters, the caddie then called Jackie applauded as Tiger birdied 15, taking a share of the lead. With nary any room to move, he only heard what happened next, when the crowd made it clear Tiger had done something magical on 16, setting his tee shot only a few inches from the hole.
“That cheer is a Tiger cheer,” Nicklaus said, and indeed it was, a second straight birdie putting Tiger two shots clear of the field.
“Nobody’s catching him at 14 [under],” he said, turning to his daughters. “Let’s just watch him walk by.”
And so they did, applauding again as Woods made his way up 17, laughing once more at how Jack was absolutely certain his dad would be home watching on TV (confirmed when dad tweeted out congratulations to Woods), crediting in full a return to greatness that seemed all but lost in a haze of injury, embarrassment and age, but once again seems on track again to challenge Nicklaus’s all-time major record.
“If he breaks it, he earned it,” Nicklaus II said.
With all the drama of Sunday, with a weather-altered start time that turned this into breakfast at Augusta, with golfers teeing off on both the first and 10th holes and going out in threesomes just to beat an afternoon forecast of storms, with a leaderboard so stocked with star power and ultimately owned by the brightest star of them all, this one might well loosen Nicklaus’s hold on the title of best Masters Sunday ever.
“I can tell you that ’86 meant a lot to me because that was the first memory that I have of the Masters, seeing Jack celebrate,” Woods would say afterward, the glow of his smile lighting up an overflowing media center auditorium. “I remember seeing him hug Jackie there on 18, how special that was.
“In ’86, and he was 46 years old; I’m 43. We had little spells in between. He had, what, six years or so I think where he didn’t win a major championship, and for me, it was 11 years. In either case, I think that’s for everyone else to decide. It’s special to me. It’s special to my friends and family, and I think that everyone out here got a chance to witness something that was amazing.”
Remember back to last Tuesday, when golfers were taking their initial drives down Magnolia Lane, when predictions were flying and hope was soaring as to who might win the Masters, when Tiger was only hinting at what might be coming next, when it was onetime sparring partner turned friend Phil Mickelson who proved the greatest sage of all.
“I just wouldn’t rule him out,” Mickelson said that day. “I just think that greatness is still in him, and I would never rule him out.”
Turns out we never should have.