There’s a hangover today in the wake of a celebration that so spectacularly broke the boundaries of sport.
If you can’t appreciate what Tiger Woods winning his fifth green jacket at the Masters means to golf, what his recovery and transformation mean as a redemptive tale to folks who don’t even follow the game, you’re one cold-hearted soul.
Woods has left us in awe in victory before, but never like this, never in gaping wonder over what he has collectively overcome in body, mind and spirit.
The hangover, however, isn’t among Woods’ legion of devoted followers.
The throbbing headache comes in the morning after for Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Jordan Spieth, Francesco Molinari and all the players who must deal with what Woods’ victory could mean.
“We’re going to have to step up our games,” said Patrick Reed, the man who slipped the green jacket on Woods Sunday at Augusta National. “Because Tiger is back, and he’s proven it this week.”
This generation has been praised as stronger, deeper and more gifted than the one Woods first tore through gaining dominion over the game.
Maybe that’s true, but we didn’t see it Sunday.
Yes, there was epic triumph in the way Woods birdied the 13th, 15th and 16th holes to gain control on the second nine, in the way he avoided mistakes under the pressure of a packed leaderboard.
But there was epic failure in the way so many of his challengers failed to meet the challenge with the championship up for grabs.
That’s the sting losing ought to bring to everyone who had a chance to beat Woods on Sunday and didn’t.
Woods was two behind beginning the day, shot 70 and needed just a bogey at the last to win.
There was a five-way tie for the lead with Woods standing in the 15th fairway.
Six players had a share of the lead on the second nine, four of them major championship winners.
Emerging from that logjam, Woods did more than win his 15th major championship. He gained the last piece of armor he needed to fortify himself for a run at Jack Nicklaus’ Holy Grail of golf records, the 18 majors Nicklaus won. Woods won the confidence he needed to re-engage Nicklaus.
“He’s got me shaking in my boots,” Nicklaus good-naturedly said in a Golf Channel interview on Sunday.
That’s what too many challengers looked like while folding, fading or fizzling when Woods was at his best.
With his victory Sunday, Woods completely changed the narrative for all the stars who made names for themselves while Woods battled challenges that threatened to end his career and mar his legacy.
McIlroy, Koepka, Thomas, Reed, Spieth and others made this a fascinating generation of not just stars, but intriguing personalities.
Now, with Woods taking aim at Nicklaus again, with Bethpage Black hosting the PGA Championship next month and Pebble Beach hosting the U.S. Open in two months, all these young guys are reduced to something significantly less.
They’re all annoying nuisances now.
They’re all in the way of what golf really wants to see again.
They’re in the way of Tiger challenging Jack, potentially the biggest and most important story in the history of the game.
Now, today’s generation is going to know what it felt like to be in the field when Tiger was in his prime, when almost nobody else mattered but Tiger, when every interview came with multiple Tiger questions, when nothing else mattered with Tiger stalking a title.
This isn’t to say Tiger will be a factor every time he tees it up now, but it sure looks as if that’s the way it is going to be in the majors. Even before this Masters’ title, he contended in the final two majors last year, briefly tying for the lead in the final round of The Open and trailing by just one on the back nine at the PGA Championship.
Now, Bethpage Black and Pebble Beach loom, courses where Woods has been dominant.
Today’s players gave Woods something at Augusta National that they may regret. They’ve given him the foothold he needed to believe big again.
“I had serious doubts after what transpired a couple years ago,” Woods said. “I could barely walk ... It’s probably one of the biggest wins I’ve had, because of it.”
So many of Tiger’s fellow competitors lined up to congratulate him after he won Sunday. Rickie Fowler, Koepka, Thomas, Bubba Watson, Zach Johnson, Trevor Immelman, Ian Poulter and Xander Schauffele greeted him as he entered scoring. They all know what he means to the game. There was respect, gratitude and graciousness in it.
“It’s nice to see his story, his comeback, and to be a witness in the first person,” Molinari said. “It’s nice.”
Now comes the not-so nice part for today’s players.
It’s trying to ruin the big story at Bethpage, Pebble Beach and beyond.
It’s to do what Tiger taught them all, to fight, scrap and never give up.