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After witnessing it first-hand, what it's like watching Tiger Woods' Masters win on TV

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A confession: I’ve never seen the final-round broadcast of the 2019 Masters.

Sure, roughly 10.8 million people tuned in to watch Tiger Woods snap an 11-year winless drought, but I wasn’t among them. This was not by design, nor was it a case of occupational negligence. But it happened, and for the past 51 weeks I haven’t felt whole.

And so, with an afternoon to kill during these quarantine times, I finally sat down for CBS’ 5-hour, 52-minute and 33-second presentation, much to the exasperation of my wife.

“Weren’t you there?” she huffed.

And, yes. Yes, I was. That day I even wrote the game story for this very website. But I hadn’t watched a single minute of the telecast, and it was time to fill that void with (sigh) Masters week now upon us.

GC Podcast: On the ground for Tiger's historic win

Rex Hoggard, Ryan Lavner and Will Gray recount their experiences on the ground covering Tiger Woods' historic win at the 2019 Masters

Some background: Viewers at home, of course, are keenly aware of the leaderboard jockeying and key shots. Even us scribes, in our state-of-the-art Augusta National media center, can stay locked into the action, each of our work areas equipped with a stats tablet and a TV monitor that pulls in feeds from all of the broadcast partners. Still, the Masters is unlike any other tournament we cover. Without cellphones or social media or inside-the-ropes access, we’re all in the same position – mingling among the patrons, listening to the roars, waiting for the hand-operated leaderboards to update.

Keeping track of the constant fluctuations in the scoring area? Forget about it.

Communicating with co-workers about what they’re writing? Not once you leave the media center.

In a way, it’s actually a risk venturing out onto the course, knowing I’ll be incommunicado and the at-home viewer will be more knowledgeable about what transpires. But our press credential also grants us unique access, and, in my opinion, it’s our responsibility to utilize it. So that’s what I chose, walking with – but, while battling teeming crowds, not necessarily watching – the last group for much of the final round.

That meant I missed the five-way logjam on the second nine.

I missed how close Brooks Koepka came to slipping into the green jacket.

And, most disappointingly, I missed Tiger’s goosebumps moment with his family; media isn’t allowed in that cordoned-off area behind the 18th green.

Watching the broadcast in my living room, 51 weeks later, was a revelatory experience. I knew the end result and yet, in a few cases, was learning how we arrived at that point. It confirmed my reporting, prompted more questions and gave me a new appreciation for Tiger’s 15th – and most improbable – major title.

***

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• The broadcast begins at 9 a.m. ET – five hours early because of the threat of inclement weather – with a shot of leader Francesco Molinari and then Woods departing the practice area. I stood in those grandstands for an hour watching Woods warm up. All those stories the past few years of a kinder, gentler Tiger? Of a reflective 40-something letting down his guard for the younger generation? No, not today. He didn’t acknowledge anyone. Not even a glance. It was just like old times. This was his moment to seize, and he knew it.

• Cameras catch Woods stretching on each of the first two tee boxes. The targeted areas: his lower back, his neck, even his right thigh. This isn’t altogether surprising: He’s 43 years old, with a fused back, and the early start left him with less time to recover; he’d mentioned the previous night that he would wake around 3:45 a.m. to prepare his body. Still, he shows no signs of a left-knee injury, the ailment that apparently had bothered him for months and would require arthroscopic surgery last fall.

• Looks like disaster off the second tee: Tiger snapped his drive left, into the trees, an area of the course known as the Delta ticket counter – because you might as well fly home if your ball winds up there. But Woods catches a break! He has an angle to pitch out down the fairway, and then finds the green from 217 yards away. Crisis averted.

Tiger on 2
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• Tiger is touching his face as he lines up his birdie putt on 2. Ahh, simpler times.

• First great shot of the day, to 10 feet on No. 3. The only problem is that it’ll be a lightning-fast, downhill swinger. Says CBS’ Peter Kostis: “He’ll have to hit that putt about 6 inches.” I’ll miss Kostis, if/when the Masters is played this year. Terrific analyst. And he was right – Woods barely touches the putt but pours it into the cup. One back.

• Tiger looks calm, emotionless. He's calmly chewing on his gum and focusing on his breathing. It’s a five-hour marathon, so why waste any energy? He’s hardly uttered a word to anyone outside of caddie Joe LaCava.

The third player in the group, Tony Finau, would confirm as much later. After exchanging good-luck greetings on the first tee, Finau said he didn’t talk to Woods again until the seventh hole, when they walked off the tee together and figured it was time to break the silence. “I said, ‘Hey, Tiger, how’s the family? How’s the kids?’” Finau recalled a few months ago. “And he looked at me pretty straight-faced and said, ‘They’re good.’ And he kept walking.” Finau didn’t talk to him again until the 18th green.

Tiger heading to 6 tee
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• A Masters first for Woods: He bogeyed par-4 fifth hole in each round. Cameras don’t follow Woods as he walks off the green, but we’ll later learn that LaCava stepped in here and gave Woods a stern pep talk – “some things that I can’t really repeat here,” Woods said in his Sunday presser. After LaCava’s lecture, Woods ducked into the restroom and chastised himself. “I came out and felt a lot better,” he said. Cameras caught him reemerging from the bathroom on his way to No. 6 tee. This, to Woods at least, was a pivotal moment.

Woods and Molinari on 6
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• Is it time for Tiger to put the screws to Frankie? He and LaCava are both standing in front of the tee markers on 6; Finau isn’t even in the frame. This seems intentional – like Tiger wants Molinari, when he glances up, to catch a glimpse of that Sunday red. And, for a second, it looks like the intimidation tactic works! Molinari sails his tee shot well over the green, while Woods is 15 feet away.

Molinari is apparently not interested in engaging in any mind games, however. Here’s where he stood, for reference:

Woods and Molinari on 6
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Ultimately, there’ll be no blood here – Molinari with a sporty up-and-down for par, Woods with a meager effort on his hooking putt.

• A two-shot swing ensues on No. 7, and what stands out early from the broadcast is just how off Molinari looks. He has a two-way miss going: left rough on 1, skied drive on 2, high banana ball on 5, a hook on 7, a fade into the bunker on 8. He’s been scrambling like crazy to stay in front, though he just made his first bogey in 50 holes, snapping the second-longest streak in Masters history.

• Another pivotal moment here on No. 9. With only 168 yards left, and the ball below his feet, Woods tugs his 8-iron approach onto the back shelf, leaving an impossible putt from outside 50 feet. Rain has extinguished some of the fire of Augusta’s notoriously speedy greens, but two putts from here will be a challenge.

Tiger on 9
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The only way for Woods to get this lag close is to send his ball up near the left fringe. He does so perfectly, trickling his ball down the steep slope, nearly coming to a stop, but then picking up speed as it tracks toward the cup. As a viewer you can feel CBS' Nick Faldo rising out of his seat as he says to partner Jim Nantz, clearing the stage for a potentially memorable call: “It’s all yours, Jim!”

“Oh my goodness,” Nantz gushes as Woods’ ball expires about a foot away, leading to a tap-in par and a one-shot deficit heading to the second nine.

• Woods uncorks a wild drive on No. 11, but unlike the previous hole, which he bogeyed to fall two back, this one settles onto the packed-down mud. He has a small window to the green. I remember standing a few yards away from this spot, wondering whether Woods would take it on. Molinari’s ball had crept onto the front edge, so how aggressive would Woods be? Turn it over too much and it’s in the pond, his two-shot deficit swelling even more. Flare it right and he has a delicate pitch down the slope.

Considering all that could have gone wrong here, his 7-iron to 20 feet is one of the underrated shots of the day.

Tiger on 11
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• Into Rae’s Creek goes Brooks Koepka on 12. Woods talked after the round (and on several other occasions) that he was able to see what Koepka and Ian Poulter had done on 12 while he was a hole behind. But this isn’t clear from the broadcast. In fact, while Finau is standing over his ball on No. 11, you can hear the groan from the patrons as Poulter’s ball finds the water on 12.

And Woods? He's blocked out by the trees and hasn’t even hit yet.

Tiger on 11
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Why is this important? Because that means as Woods was walking up to the 11th green, he somehow understood:

1.) Koepka had come up short;

2.) He’d likely used a 9-iron, since, Woods said, “he is stronger than I am and flights it better than I do”;

3.) And that Woods’ 9-iron, then, couldn’t cover the flag, so he’d need to play left, over the tongue of the bunker.

Again, he computed all of this in a matter of seconds, in the heat of the moment. 

Two words, folks: Golf IQ.

• Here comes the tournament. I was standing in front of the grandstand behind the 12th tee. At the time I didn’t realize just how long the threesome had waited on the tee; on the telecast, it was a few minutes, but it felt like an eternity, with the tournament hanging in the balance. Faldo advises Molinari to hit a tiny draw that starts 3 yards left of the flag, for safety ... but, of course, he doesn’t pull it off. I can still hear the gasps from the patrons, followed closely by the growing murmurs, knowing that Molinari had just cracked the Masters wide open.

In the booth, Faldo is at his best here: “That was just so weak,” he says. “The ball didn’t even look like it was flying.”

Tiger doesn't react when his playing competitor rinses his shot. This fan is slightly more animated:

Molinari on 12
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Woods expertly plays the shot that’s required – “That was safe going safe, that one,” Faldo says. Though Finau makes better contact than Molinari, his tee ball hit a wind wall, coming up 10 yards short of his landing area and finding the water.

• Just like on No. 6, this moment on No. 12 seems to suggest that Woods is trying to intimidate his opponents by walking across the Hogan Bridge and waiting on the left side of the green. But is he really? A hot mic catches Woods asking someone behind the green: “Do you guys have blowers up there or no?”

The answer was no, because, here, you can clearly see Woods reading his putt and removing the debris in his line:

Tiger on 12
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So maybe this wasn’t an intimidation tactic, after all – he’d just bought himself some extra time to read his putt and do some gardening. Whatever the case, walking off 12, they're all tied up.

• Who knew? Bubba Watson was one shot off the lead as he played the 17th. Then he promptly hooked his tee shot into the trees.

• Something else I’d completely missed being on the ground and walking with Tiger’s group: Patrick Cantlay’s surge. He made an eagle putt on 15 to take the outright lead. For many smart reasons Cantlay is a trendy pick to break through for a major victory soon, but it’s instructive to see how he played Nos. 16-17 when he grabbed a major lead for the first time: He fanned his tee shot on 16 atop the ridge and hit a weak comeback par putt; then he blew another drive way right on 17, roped his approach long and left over the green and missed another 8-footer for a second straight bogey. Tournament, over.

• Now playing in a steady rain, Tiger’s tee shot was perfect on No. 13, but it wasn’t without a little stress. Look at this foot slip and terrifying ShotTracer!

Tiger on 13
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Also: Tiger had only 161 yards left into 13. That doesn’t seem like, ahem, "a momentous decision."

• There’s a five-way tie for the lead right now. With five holes to play. Again: Had no idea. This leaderboard is outrageous.

• Still tied when he gets to No. 15, Molinari absolutely butchers this par 5. His tee shot is a high flail to the right, into the pine straw. CBS doesn't even show his layup, which is unfortunate, because that’s where his trouble began – he gave himself no angle down the left side, in the first cut, with only 79 yards to the flag.

This is not position A:

Molinari on 15
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To me, standing a few yards behind Molinari, it’s obvious what happens with his watery third shot: His ball climbs up the clubface and clips a tree branch. But on the telecast, Faldo and Kostis first think Molinari has simply chunked his wedge shot into the pond: “He just hit it fat!” Faldo says. “Holy langaneers(???)!” Adds Kostis: “You see the sand come up?” Only after a minute or so do they spot the fallen pine cone, signaling the tree interference.

• For all of the leaderboard maneuvering, it’s clear now this is Tiger’s tournament to lose. He’s putting for eagle. He has the most holes left to play. His challengers are fading under the Sunday pressure. He takes the lead for the first time with the two-putt birdie on 15. “The impossible has become possible,” Kostis says.

• With the crosswalk on 15 roped off, I remember reversing course, zipping around the hole and making a beeline for the right side of 16 green. I could only hear, not see, Woods’ perfect shot into the par 3: the tee shot that rode the slope and settled a foot and a half underneath the cup, setting off pandemonium.

And so I had missed this brilliant reaction from Tiger, imploring his ball as it made its way down the slope: “Come on, baby. Come on. Come on. COME ON!”:

Tiger on 16
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I had missed Michael Phelps (and Carole Baskin's doppelganger) going wild behind the tee:

Phelps on 16
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I had missed Koepka, on the 17th tee, needing to back off because the patrons all around him were losing their minds:

Koepka on 17
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I still made it to 16 in time to see Woods send his birdie putt into the back of the cup, with authority, to take a two-shot lead with two to play. Before he hangs up his headset for the day, legendary broadcaster Verne Lundqvist says: “I’m compelled to say: Oh. My. Goodness.”

• Woods’ 8-iron into 16 might have been the most replayed shot from his victory, but the most significant, at least to me, was his drive down No. 17. It's absolutely roasted, leaving Woods with only a wedge into the green. He looks down and grips the brim of his cap to compose himself. It's happening.

Tiger on 17
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• Kudos to those who remembered that Justin Harding played in the third-to-last group and birdied the last to tie for 12th, sealing his return to this year’s Masters.

• In Woods’ prime, players used to quake in his presence. There were statistics, even psychological studies, to back this up. So as Woods played the last two holes, it’s worth asking: Why did so many retreat late on Sunday? Was it Tiger’s name on the board, or simply the pressure of trying to win a major, some of them for the first time?

Likely the latter, especially at this stage of Tiger’s career, but it was indisputable that everyone seemed to fade away, clearing the path to Butler Cabin: Molinari, of course, most calamitously. And Finau never recovered from 12. But Cantlay relented, too. So did Dustin Johnson, who drove into the bunker on 18 and missed a 15-footer. And Rickie Fowler, who bogeyed the 72nd hole. And Xander Schauffele, who found the bunker on 18 and chunked his approach from the sand.

Not even King Koepka could summon the goods late. Needing to make a move, he missed a 12-footer on 17 and then was thisclose on 18, with a do-or-die putt that could have applied a ton of pressure on Woods to close it out:

Koepka on 18
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Nantz pounced right away and was surprisingly frank: “Might have been the worst stroke of the day,” he said. “Never seen him at a critical time miss by that wide a margin.” (Koepka would redeem himself a month later, of course.)

• Tiger got some help, no doubt, but he won the Masters with sensational iron play during the heart of the second nine:

  • 20 feet for birdie on 11, on the proper side of the hole
  • Safe on 12, but pin high
  • Just past the flag on 13 for eagle, away from trouble
  • Pin-high on 14, inside 20 feet for birdie
  • Pin-high on 15, about 30 feet for eagle
  • Stone-dead on 16
  • Pin-high to 12 feet on 17

An absolute clinic, those seven holes.

• Though it felt like it on the ground, with patrons hooting and hollering and practically pinching themselves, the broadcast tells a different story. That, to Woods at least, this is far from a coronation. There’s no smiling. No laughter. No acknowledgement of the crowd as he walks off the tee on 18. No doffing of his cap. He doesn’t want to butcher this final hole, do anything silly.

And so, once Woods plays a safe third shot, about 20 feet long and right of the flag, he finally gives The Look: Yeah, I’ve done it.

Pic on 18
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• Where was I with all of this madness about to be unleashed? Hustling up the left side, trying to wade through tens of thousands of people, my sights set on the interview area near the clubhouse. Being vertically challenged doesn’t help, but there was no way to see the action unfold on 18.

So while, yes, I felt the ground shake and heard the crowd chanting TI-GER! TI-GER!, I didn’t see his exultation on the green. I didn’t see his lusty celebration with his family and inner circle. I didn’t see his left arm raised in triumph, as he walked side by side with his son Charlie.

Tiger after
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“If that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye if you’re a parent,” Nantz says, "you’re not human."

“The whole euphoria of everything: The patrons. The emotion. The chanting,” Faldo says. “We’ll never see anything as exhilarating as that [again].”

Waiting in the scoring area were Masters winners Trevor Immelman, Zach Johnson and Bernhard Langer. So were Masters hopefuls Schauffele, Fowler and Justin Thomas.

I was there, too, notebook and tape recorder out, adrenaline pumping.

It was time to get to work.