By Travelin’ Joe Passov
If the tears weren’t flowing, you better have your ducts checked. On Sunday, April 14, 2019, Tiger Woods captured his fifth Masters title in dramatic fashion, and in so doing, completed the greatest comeback in the history of golf, and likely the greatest revival in the history of sports. It was shocking and comforting all at once. This was the vintage Tiger of old. For a generation of fans who had never seen him win a major, the 2019 Masters was the sweetest, most electrifying triumph in his career. His 15th major championship wasn’t easy, but it was pure Tiger.
The architect of Diamante’s El Cardonal course, Oasis Short course and the upcoming Legacy course, Tiger was fresh off a phenomenal 2018 season, contending until the end at both the British Open and the PGA Championship, and then celebrating a thrilling victory, his first in five years, at the TOUR Championship in September. Only 18 months prior, Woods had entertained the possibility that he might never play golf again, due to the debilitating physical issues from four back surgeries and procedures that had extracted a terrible toll on his body. He told the past Masters winners just that in Augusta at the 2017 Champions Dinner.
At the 2019 Masters, Tiger took a sledgehammer to that forecast and smashed it to bits.
I was there in 1996 when Tiger arrived as the two-time U.S. Amateur champ. After playing a practice round with Woods and with four-time Masters champ Arnold Palmer, six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus was so impressed with Woods’ talent that he couldn’t stop gushing.
“Arnold and I both agreed ,” Nicklaus said, “that you could take his Masters (victories) and my Masters, and add them together, and this kid should win more than that.”
No pressure, or anything.
I was also there to see a 21-year-old Tiger dominate Augusta National in 1997 as no one ever had, crushing the competition by 12 shots with a record-shattering 270 total, 18-under-par. Mr. Nicklaus, you could be right!
Twenty-two years later, when most of the universe had all but dismissed the idea of Tiger winning another Masters, or another major, he proved them all wrong, again. His 2019 season had been solid, if not spectacular, yet Tiger assured us that he was rounding into form just the way he wanted to. I took a lot of heat for years among media colleagues and readers for voicing my view that Tiger wasn’t through, that he had more wins and another major in him. Why did I feel that way? Just getting to know him at Diamante and elsewhere convinced me that he was a singular athlete–in focus, in thought process, in ability, in heart. If he felt he were capable of coming back and winning again, how could I not?
There he was, two shots back at the 12th hole on Sunday. He had planted a brilliant iron to within a foot at the seventh and eased a long, brutal putt down the slope from the back of the ninth green to tap-in range, but otherwise, Tiger-like moments had been scarce. Then, at the 12th he watched the one player he trailed, Francesco Molinari, make a crucial mistake, splashing his tee shot on one of earth’s most iconic par-3s. Tiger then stepped up and did just what Nicklaus used to do—hit the smartest shot possible. After a difficult two-putt, he was now tied for the lead. To me, it felt just like old times. Either he crushed the field, or he let others around him make fatal mistakes. And we were off.
Two perfect drives and ideal irons brought him two-putt birdies at 13 and 15. Then came the goose-bump moment, an 8-iron at the 179-yard, par-3 16th. He placed his shot perfectly, 25 feet to the right of the pin, and watched the ball slowly roll off the slope toward the hole. It missed the cup by two inches and finished three feet away, eerily reminiscent of Nicklaus’ shot at the same hole in the 1986 Masters. He was almost home.
When one contender after another fell away, and then finally when Brooks Koepka pulled his 10-foot birdie putt at the final hole, we all perceived what was about to happen. Even a bogey would give Tiger his fifth green jacket. When he tapped in at the 72nd hole, he pumped his fist, thrust both arms skyward—and then he roared. It could have been a scream, or a yell, but this was Tiger Woods, and this was a deafening roar. He hugged everyone in sight, including an especially poignant embrace with his son Charlie, which brought back vivid memories of an identical moment with his father, Earl, when Tiger won in ’97.
I was ecstatic. But why was I—and so many of us—so emotional? Partly, we all crave a classic comeback story—and this one might never be topped. Plus, we all seek out that moment where we prove everybody wrong. And yes, we’re older now. We look back to more youthful times in our lives, when Tiger was front and center, and realize that for one more perfect moment, we’re 15 years younger. Congratulations, Tiger. And thank you.