The propensity of the Masters to deliver moments in time is beyond golfing parallel. They needn’t always arrive at the tournament’s 72nd hole. If the Hogan Bridge, Butler Cabin and Magnolia Lane define Augusta National, its celebrated tournament also has reference points throughout the sprawling acreage.
When Ian Poulter is taken back to Masters Sunday of 2019, he recalls his view from the 13th tee. Poulter was one of four players from the tournament’s closing two groups – of three, unusually – to find water at the 12th. Behind him Tiger Woods played safe on the world’s most famous par three and found dry land.
“I looked across as he hit his shot into the middle of the green and from that point he had control of what he was doing,” says Poulter. “It was inevitable.”
“It” was a 15th major championship, Woods’s first since 2008 and a conquest for which words barely deliver justice. Eleven years had witnessed adultery shame, fitness woes and a form slump that triggered the widespread depiction of a fallen hero. Tremors reverberated beyond sport as this iconic figure conjured the ultimate redemption tale amid wild, uncharacteristic celebration.
Courtesy of a win in 2013, Adam Scott has automatic entry to one of sport’s most exclusive spaces; the champions’ locker room at Augusta National. Having signed off with a 73 for a share of 18th, 12 months ago, Scott seized an unexpected opportunity. The Australian discovered “seven or eight” past Masters champions gathered round a television. “I came in having finished and they were all sitting there,” says Scott. “I thought: ‘This is cool.’ I mean, you don’t all hang out that much. You don’t get that group of people together very often. There was definitely a fraternity feeling. Everyone was very excited that Tiger was doing what he was doing.
“As I was finishing my round you got a sense, as he was taking the lead on the back nine, that something special could be happening. There’s always an electricity in the air at Augusta on a Sunday, but then when Tiger or certain people are in the mix there’s something more. All of us were definitely cheering hard for Tiger to win. You just had that sense it was a significant moment in the sport again.”
This was no standard Masters denouement even before Woods set pulses racing. Storms forecast for Augusta ensured early tee times and those three-balls as opposed to pairs. Woods started day four two shots adrift of Francesco Molinari, tied with Tony Finau and one ahead of Brooks Koepka. “We had never really been in contention on the last day of the Masters so it didn’t feel ‘different’ for us,” says Ricky Elliott, Koepka’s caddie, of a dawn alarm call.
In theory, Woods wouldn’t be helped by the swift turnaround from a late Saturday finish to a 9.20am start as the lingering stresses of multiple back surgeries were considered. “I thought it was advantageous to the guys who hadn’t won [the Masters],” Woods recalls. “They didn’t have to sit on that lead and think about it far into the afternoon. But I hadn’t been in this experience, either.” Woods was pursuing another first; major victory from a non-leading position after 54 holes.
From a personal nadir – Woods was found by police when slumped behind the wheel of his car in May 2017 and handed a DUI charge – there had been traces of a full professional recovery. Woods won the Tour Championship at East Lake in late 2018. Just weeks before the Masters, Woods knocked Rory McIlroy out of the WGC Match Play in Texas. “He played very well,” says McIlroy. “I could see him as one of the Masters favourites on the back of what I saw there. He was driving the ball better. With how good his iron play is, if he drives it well he will always have a great chance at Augusta.” Woods had Georgia on his mind alright. “Augusta started probably back in October, November,” he said last February of his Masters planning.
You cannot win the Masters on Thursday or Friday but you can sure as hell lose it. A 70 and a 68 had Woods one stroke from the halfway lead, held by a quintet including Scott, Molinari and Koepka. “There wasn’t much conversation with Tiger during those first two rounds,” confirms Jon Rahm, one of his playing partners. “But that isn’t unusual at a major.”
A Saturday pairing with Poulter led people to highlight the ‘new’ Tiger. In 2018 the duo were also third-round companions but nowhere near Masters contention. “He shot five under, I shot four under and I played great,” says the Englishman. “At that point I was thinking: ‘If I can have another day like that I might have a chance.’ He was ready, he had all the shots and was pretty damn good. He had more of his game together than a year earlier, by a mile. There was a buzz out there all day Saturday. Playing with him was fun, but you could sense he was lurking.”
It felt as if 99% of the Sunday gallery – 10 deep in places – were manning the 1st fairway as Woods, Molinari and Finau appeared on the tee. By midday, Woods strode to the 10th trailing the Italian by one. “I’ve always felt this, if I’m within six of the lead starting the back nine on Sunday, I’ve got a shot at it,” Woods says.
Poulter had Koepka and Webb Simpson for company in the penultimate group. Koepka’s threat to Woods was obvious; the Floridian arrived at the 83rd Masters having won on two of his previous three major outings. With Molinari holding a two-stroke lead, Koepka and Woods were level at 11 under par before disaster, namely Rae’s Creek, struck for the reigning US Open and US PGA champion at the 12th.
“We were a couple behind Frankie so I think Brooks felt he had to do more and changed his line a little bit,” explains Elliott. “He maybe lost a bit of patience. If he had been in the last group and seen everyone in front dunk it in the water he might have thought differently.”
Molinari’s horrid capitulation also started at Golden Bell. The Italian, who brushed Woods aside en route to Open Championship glory less than a year earlier, shared fifth from such a commanding earlier position. “Having the Claret Jug and winning a major not long before already told me I was able to do it,” Molinari says. “In some ways it made the disappointment a little bit bigger; that time I wasn’t able to close it out.”
Elliott can reel off Koepka’s closing stretch as if it were yesterday. “Eagles 13, great chance at 14 and left it short, 15 I thought he had holed it for eagle, 16 the ball just stayed above the slope …” The key, though, is that Koepka was “right back in it”. Woods delivered a crushing blow to all the young pretenders with a glorious, for-the-ages tee shot at the par three 16th, almost resulting in a hole-in-one. The Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps, in the gallery directly behind Woods, was among those caught in the moment.
“We were on the 17th tee when Tiger’s shot came in,” Elliott adds. “We were pin high, standing on tip toes watching it. It looked like it was going in the hole. So it’s incredible to be there, in that moment even though Brooks was still in the hunt. Tiger now had a two shot lead but that’s no gimme at Augusta.
“We were playing catch up all day and it didn’t really feel like we gave it away. In hindsight, if he had holed a couple of putts it could have been a back door win. We were never ahead, always behind, so we weren’t kicking doors in afterwards. It was an unbelievably exciting day.”
Woods’s playing of the last was conservative. And rightly so. A bogey five was sufficient for victory, meaning the champion-in-waiting found himself short and right of the putting surface in two. “When I was walking up on the green, to see my family and friends there through the chute, I started to get a little bit emotional,” Woods says. “I had to rein it back in and say: Hey, it’s not quite over yet.”
When it was, Woods couldn’t anticipate he would have to wait at least 19 months for a title defence. Through horrible, unforeseen circumstances, this somehow manages to add to the allure of what transpired on 14 April 2019. An enduring story has been allowed a broader canvas. No one who witnessed this will ever forget it.