While walking the grounds of Augusta National, it’s usually easy to pick out first-timers at the Masters. The wide-eyed gazes slowly give way to a nervous excitement and the telling and re-telling of everything they’ve taken in so far.
On Sunday, it was the grizzled veterans in the sea of patrons that were at a loss in trying to comprehend what they were seeing.
Press members and broadcasters used to the biggest events in all of sports struggled to describe how the roars were different and louder than they’ve ever heard. Patrons whose Masters badges have run through generations of their families couldn’t remember a Sunday with so much buzz from beginning to end.
There were some new and huge moments experienced at Augusta, beginning with how the final round teed off. Not only were groups going off three-at-a-time instead of in the traditional pairings, but the groups lower down the leaderboard took the nearly unheard-of step of starting their rounds on No. 10.
All of that shuffling was done in attempt to avoid severe storms expected to hit Augusta as the day carried on. So instead of the usual mid-afternoon tee times for Sunday’s leaders, all but the final group had hit its first shots before 9 a.m.
One Augusta native and longtime patron stated a few times how he was a bit concerned about missing church services – but not so concerned that he was going to miss Tiger Woods in the final group.
The weather carried all of the early headlines, but it was all Tiger, all the time after that.
Sure, Francesco Molinari was the tournament leader by two strokes through three rounds. And the current British Open champ looked to be in cruise control as he carried his lead into the second nine.
But then Augusta National happened…And Tiger Woods happened.
Ahead of the final group, contenders Ian Poulter and Brooks Koepka fell victim to Rae’s Creek on No. 12. And – like so many others before him – Molinari also saw his Masters chances bounce softly in front of the 12th green, only to roll into the water and bring about a double-bogey.
Tiger Woods then stood on the tee at No. 12. He put it right in the middle of the green and made his par. One hole later, he was tied for the lead and on No. 15 – when Molinari found water again – Woods climbed to the top of the field.
The middle of the back nine is where most of the storied Augusta roars originate. They bounce off the pines and rush towards the 18th green, letting everyone know that the tournament leaders are making moves late (or early, in this case) on Sunday. The birdie by Woods at No. 15 to take the lead resulted in an explosion.
Just a few minutes later, Woods sent the crowd over the top. He dialed in an 8-iron off the tee on No. 16 and found the ridge in the green, sending the ball trickling just past the hole and setting up a birdie and a two-stroke lead. The way the ball nearly stopped before slowly rolling more than 30 feet towards the pin was eerily reminiscent of Woods’ famous chip-in at No. 16 – the last time he won the Masters in 2005.
By the time Woods was in the fairway on No. 17, it was bedlam at Augusta. Patrons were trying to find a viewing angle on No. 18 to witness the culmination of one of the best comeback stories in sports history. Members of the press were at a loss to figure out just how to describe what had transpired. Even some of the Augusta National members – easily identifiable in their trademark green jackets – were visibly rooting for Woods to claim another Masters title.
And when Woods calmly dropped in a 1-footer for the win, everything all poured out.
For over a decade, Woods’ fans had wondered if he would ever win another major. When back surgeries piled up and reports leaked of him barely being able to walk, the wonder turned to doubt. When Woods was arrested for DUI charges and details emerged that the incident was linked to prescription pain medication related to the back issues, his well-being seemed to be the issue worth more consideration than any golf tournament he might ever play in again.
In the span of two years, Woods went from that incredible low point to a cozy armchair at Butler Cabin. It was the sort of story that would get laughed out of writer’s rooms for being too magical or sentimental. At the turn of the century, Woods built his legend on being the one guy who could will his way into playing shots and creating a story beyond what anyone could have thought up on their own.
And for at least one more Sunday at Augusta, Woods proved that he’s still that great champion who can bring out the best in himself, his fans and an entire sport.
Mike Anthony is sports editor for the Statesboro Herald, a Morris Multimedia property in Statesboro, Ga.