AUGUSTA, Ga. – He was done. Everyone knew it. Even Tiger Woods.
At the 2017 Masters, Woods’ back was so ravaged that he needed a nerve blocker just to attend the Champions Dinner. Slumped in his chair, searing pain shooting down his legs, he leaned forward and whispered to a fellow green jacket: “I’m done. I’m done. My back is done.”
For so many years Woods made the superhuman seem routine, but Notah Begay III watched his longtime friend suffer in agony, unable to complete even the most basic tasks. Before a fourth back surgery, Woods required the use of a specialized reclining chair in his Jupiter, Fla., mansion. He couldn’t even hobble to the car without assistance, needing to drape an arm over Begay’s shoulder for support.
“It was one of those moments in my life, after seeing up-close and personal how hard it was, that it was a realistic consideration that it all could have been over,” Begay said.
But the same night as the Champions Dinner, Woods flew to England to meet with a back specialist. The doctor’s recommendation – the only possible remedy for Woods’ 24/7 pain – was a Hail Mary spinal-fusion surgery that would improve his quality of life, that at least would offer him the possibility of closing out his legendary career on his own terms.
“What people see and understand is only a fraction of what he had to overcome,” Begay said. “To say that it’s been a phenomenal comeback doesn’t even come close to doing it justice.”
The golf world is scrambling for superlatives now, after a Sunday unlike any other at Augusta National.
Fourteen years removed from his last Masters title, 11 years after his most recent major, a few years since his private life became tabloid fodder and his game sank to embarrassing lows and his body betrayed him, Tiger Woods improbably won another major championship. For the first time in his storied career, he came from behind to win a major, chasing down Francesco Molinari on the second nine and then hanging on for a one-shot victory.
There has been no shortage of instant classics throughout Woods’ career: The 1997 Masters signaling the start of a new era; the 2000 U.S. Open capping the greatest golf ever played; the 2001 Masters and the completion of the Tiger Slam, a monument to his extraordinary talent. But this Masters, at age 43, was a deeply personal achievement, a warning shot that his pursuit of Big Jack’s 18 majors isn’t over yet, and arguably his most impressive feat in a career full of them.
“It’s got to be right up there, with all of the things that I’ve battled through,” Woods said afterward. “I was just lucky enough and fortunate enough to be able to do this again.”
So much was different about major No. 15 – his body and swing, his competition and perspective – but the biggest change of all was waiting for him behind the 18th green. His two children, Sam, 11, and Charlie, 10, have known him only as the YouTube golfer – as the living legend who twirled his clubs and pumped his fists and pummeled an entire sport into submission. But all they’d seen recently was him at his lowest, in unimaginable pain, incapable of kicking a soccer ball in the backyard, or driving them to school, or even summoning the strength to roll out of bed, the reason he kept a urine bucket next to his nightstand.
And so as Woods walked off the green to a thunderous roar, a major winner again, he screamed, "WOOOOOOO!" and bear-hugged Charlie – a scene reminiscent of when Tiger collapsed in the arms of his own father, Earl, in ’97.
“For them to see what it’s like to have their dad win a major championship," Woods said, "I hope that’s something they will never forget.”
It was special, too, for the members of golf’s glitterati waiting outside the scoring building. For PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. For former Masters champions like Bubba Watson, Zach Johnson and Bernhard Langer. For Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele, the generation of young stars that Woods’ dominance helped create.
“It’s hard to put this into words right now,” said Johnson, the 2007 champion. “It’s history.”
“I’ve played against him when he was really unbeatable – when he knew he was the best, and you knew he was the best, and that’s just the way it was,” said 2008 winner Trevor Immelman. “So for him to come back through all of that adversity and win the biggest tournament on Earth, it’s just unbelievable. I think it’s the greatest day and comeback in the history of sports.”
The comeback may have started with that last-ditch fusion surgery in April 2017, but it wasn’t the definitive turning point in his return to prominence. That came roughly a month later, when he was in the throes of an addiction so deep that South Florida police found him slumped over the steering wheel of his Mercedes, five drugs coursing through his system, a shocking and sad DUI arrest that was the catalyst for this clear-eyed comeback. Woods has never talked publicly about his treatment, or the impact of that sobering incident, but Begay said that it was the moment in which Woods “finally began to take responsibility for his decisions.”
“This is somebody who has a deeper appreciation of being able to live his life and play,” Begay said, “and he’s acting like it.”
Over the next few months, Woods’ quality of life improved, and so, too, did his long-term outlook. In late 2015 he said that whatever else he achieved would be “gravy,” but now, optimism began to build.
“He’s got that competitive desire,” said Rob McNamara, who has worked for Woods since 2000, currently as the vice president of TGR Ventures. “I don’t think that ever goes away. He just wants to prove it to himself. He’s competing against himself.”
The 2018 golf season was therapeutic not just for Woods but for the entire sport. With an evolving body and game, Woods scared the lead at a few events in the spring. He contended deep into two summer majors. And then he finally put it all together last fall at the Tour Championship, winning wire to wire against the top 30 PGA Tour players of the year, his first title in more than five years.
“Giving up is never in the equation,” he said. “Pushing and being competitive is what got me into this situation, but it’s also what got me out of it.”
There were scant signs in 2019 that Woods was ready to build on his resurgent season. Coming off the worst putting year of his career, he continued his decline on the greens this season, with rumblings about everything from his setup to his eyesight to his frayed nerves. Though he never finished closer than eight shots of the eventual winner, he saw evidence in practice that he was peaking for Augusta.
After trying in vain to keep up with the game’s biggest boppers, Woods finally resigned himself to a smoother rhythm off the tee. He’s found his highest percentage of fairways since 2002, and in recent starts he once again began to shape the ball both ways.
“It’s the best I’ve felt with a driver in years,” he said.
That control paid off at the Masters, where he opened with 70 and reminded reporters afterward that he’d won three of his four green jackets after posting that first-round score. He continued to climb the board with rounds of 68-67, playing his way into the final threesome Sunday with Tony Finau and Francesco Molinari.
During his prime, Woods’ dominance was so oppressive that he stunted the Hall of Fame careers of Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh, but over the past year and a half he’s been vexed by Molinari, the robotic, 5-foot-8-inch Italian who blew past him at Woods’ own tournament outside D.C., stared him down at The Open and then beat him three times at the Ryder Cup in Paris.
But the machine-like Molinari finally malfunctioned in the final round. Staked to a two-shot lead at the start of the day, he snapped a streak of 49 holes without a bogey, then made a critical mistake with an 8-iron into Rae’s Creek on 12, the double bogey erasing his two-shot advantage.
Woods pounced on his opponent’s miscues. He landed his tee shot safely in the middle of the green on 12. He needed only an 8-iron into the par-5 13th for a two-putt birdie. And then he grabbed the outright lead for the first time with another stress-free birdie on 15.
“Dude, it’s happening!” said a patron as he power-walked toward the 16th tee.
“This is history,” said his buddy, stashing his Masters ticket in his pocket, to preserve it for posterity, “and I’m witnessing it with 10,000 of my closest friends.”
The exclamation point came on 16, when Woods’ 8-iron caught the slope that bisects the middle of the green. As his ball rolled closer to the cup, the patrons 10 deep rose to their feet, raised their arms in anticipation of an ace, and then put their hands on their heads when it slid past the cup.
“This will be biggest roar you’ve ever heard in your life,” said another patron, peering into his binoculars, and sure enough, Augusta National shook, with Woods’ kick-in birdie giving him a two-shot advantage he wouldn’t fully relinquish.
Woods closed with 70 and won at 13-under 275, one clear of Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Schauffele, and a clear message had been sent.
“We’re going to have to step up our games,” said 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed, “because Tiger is back, and he’s proven it this week.”
From every corner of Augusta National, patrons young and old descended on the 18th hole, chanting Tiger’s name, in anticipation of a celebration they never could have imagined.
They high-fived and hugged and congratulated themselves on their good fortune, and who could blame them?
They were here, at the Masters, on the day The Roar returned.