“I’m done,” Tiger Woods said. It was April 4, 2017, and he was at the Masters Club Dinner, a revered annual gathering of Masters greats. Nick Faldo, a fellow Masters champion, heard Woods say his golf days were over, that he had no future as a player, and he was sitting out the tournament for the third time in four years. The man who once seemed superhuman, a champion who crushed drives to unspeakable distances with an athletic build that redefined the very look of a pro golfer, had been rendered so feeble that he needed a nerve blocker to dull the pain so he could sit in his chair at the dinner.
A series of back surgeries had failed to correct his failing body. But shortly after the meal, Woods was taking one more shot in the operating room. He underwent spinal fusion surgery in Texas in an attempt to try to live a life without pain.
Now two years later, his game fused and his competitive soul restored, 43-year-old Tiger Woods walked off the 18th green of Augusta National on April 14 to don the winner’s green jacket—his green jacket—for the fifth time. As the patrons called his name in celebration, the air filled with electric emotions. For the first time Woods got to hug his children, Sam and Charlie, after a major victory.
“It means the world to me. Their love and their support, I just can’t say enough how much that meant to me throughout my struggles when I really just had a hard time moving around,” Woods said shortly thereafter. His daughter Sam, age 12, and son Charlie, 10, were so young that they grew up not knowing their dad as the dominant force on the golf course. For them, the game of golf was just something causing their father great pain.
It had been nearly 11 years since Woods had won a major, the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, and 14 years since he last won the Masters. In September 2018, he won the Tour Championship, his first victory in five years. It was the mark of an extraordinary comeback from the ravages of injury and fueling the belief that yes, he can still do this. And now, with his 15th major, his chase of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 is officially back on.
President Donald Trump awarded Woods the Presidential Medal of Freedom in May in celebration of his Masters win and his remarkable career. Woods became only the fourth golfer in history to receive the award, joining Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Charlie Sifford.
“You’ve seen the good and the bad, the highs and the lows,” said an emotional Woods to his family and friends after he received the medal. “The amazing Masters experience that I just had a few weeks ago certainly is part of the highlight of what I’ve accomplished so far in my life on the golf course.”
The Masters has been central to Woods’ achievement, his acclaim and his adoration. From his first historical win in 1997, to back-to-back victories in 2001 and 2002, to his fourth win in 2005, Augusta National always seemed to be the perfect stage. Finally, after 14 years, he was able to make his encore.
1997: The Age of Tiger Begins
There was a mountain of expectation as Woods, at age 21, played his first Masters as a professional in 1997. He played the first round with defending champion Faldo, a six-time major winner who had seen and heard everything, until now. “No player before had ever walked to the first tee with eight policemen around him to lead him to the tee,” said Faldo. “It was a whole different aura around him. It was amazing.”
It wasn’t an amazing start. Woods opened with four bogeys on the front nine, but he ripped apart the back nine, shooting 30 and posting a 70. Woods shot 66 on Friday to lead by three. On Saturday he shot 65, pushing his lead to nine. “There is no chance humanly possible that Tiger Woods is going to lose this tournament,” said his chastened playing partner, Colin Montgomerie.
Woods won by an astounding 12 shots and made history for his youth (he was the youngest to ever win the Masters), his margin of victory and his ethnicity. Not long after Woods had hugged his father, Earl, and mother, Kultida, Lee Elder was spotted under the massive oak in front of the Augusta National clubhouse. Elder was the first black player to play in the Masters, in 1975, after the tournament changed its policy in 1972 to invite any player who won a PGA Tour event. “This day will be one glorious and happy day for all blacks,” said Elder. “No one will be turning their heads when a black player goes to the first tee anymore.”
2001: The Tiger Slam
Woods entered the 2001 Masters playing the best golf of his career, likely the best golf that had ever been played. He won the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots, following that with an eight-stroke victory in the British Open and a playoff win at the PGA Championship. That victory put him with Ben Hogan as the only two players to win three majors in a year. He had fallen just short of the Grand Slam, defined as winning all four majors in one year.
Woods opened the 2001 Masters with a 70 and as Sunday morning dawned, he had a one-shot lead. David Duval challenged him on that final day and pulled into a tie for first with a birdie on the 15th. But Duval put his tee shot on 16 into the water and Woods cruised home with a 68 for the win. Woods now was the reigning champion of all four major tournaments. He held the Tiger Slam. Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson summed it up at the award ceremony: “We have witnessed the greatest golfing feat of our time.”
2002: Just Too Good
Woods didn’t dominate this tournament, or did he? He started with a 70 (do you see a theme developing here?) and was three shots behind the leader, but by the final day he was tied for the lead with Retief Goosen, the No. 4 player in the world. But funny, even eerie things, sometimes happen when Woods’ name is on the leaderboard.
On Sunday, Goosen started out poorly and fell back. Ernie Els, who was four back to start the day, tried to make things happen on the par-5 13th, but found the water and made 8. Sergio Garcia, fifth in the world, chopped it around in 75. Singh, who was seventh in the world, dunked two balls in the pond on the 15th to make a 9.
All Woods had to do was cruise through Augusta National cloaked in his intimidating aura, shooting 71 to win by three over Goosen, who wondered if his second-place finish earned him a pair of green pants. “I don’t care what any of these guys say about not looking at him or not noticing what he’s doing,” said Wood’s father, Earl. “Tiger intimidates through osmosis. You feel it. It freaks people out.”
2005: The Pregnant Pause
There’s one thing you probably remember about the 2005 Masters: the chip. Woods had cleared the pond but missed the green left on the 16th hole. He was far from the pin, and facing a delicate shot on the par 3. Commentator Lanny Wadkins speculated that it would be tough for him to get it within 15 feet. Woods sent his ball on a long, 11-second journey. It climbed the slope and then slid down to the cup where, with the Nike swoosh in full view, it took another two seconds to fall in for a birdie. The gallery exploded.
Woods left the hole with a two-shot lead, but he started “throwing up” on the final two holes, making bogeys. He ended up in a sudden death playoff with Chris DiMarco. Replaying the 18th, Woods said he hit two of the best shots he had struck all week, a three-wood and an eight-iron. After DiMarco made par, Woods drained an 18-foot birdie putt to win his first major since the 2002 Masters.
Woods trailed by four after his opening round of 70, was one back after the second round and two back after the third. Leading the pack on the final day was Francesco Molinari, who won the 2018 British Open in a final-round battle with Woods.
Because of threatening weather the players went off early in threesomes, rather than the traditional pairs. Woods was playing with Molinari and Tony Finau, who began the day tied with Woods. On this Sunday, Woods did what he had to do, and the others didn’t. Molinari and Finau found the water on the 12th, while Tiger put the ball in the middle of the green and two-putted for par, pushing him into a three-way tie for first. Molinari faded in the final round, shooting a 74, with two double bogeys on the back nine. Finau shot 72. With his two-under-par 70, Woods was a Masters champion again, for the first time coming from behind to win a major. He walked off the 18th at Augusta for a one-shot victory.
“It’s an unreal feeling,” said Woods. “Just to have it all come together at the right time—this is what we dream about.” Given what he had gone through over the last four seasons, and given the respect he has among fellow players, the emotional reaction was mix of awe and reverence. “It’s just a monsoon of people,” said Brooks Koepka, who finished in a tie for second. “As a fan, I love it. I think it’s awesome. I’m glad he’s back.”
Brodcaster Jim Nantz, who has been a part of Masters coverage since 1986, proclaimed Tiger’s victory the greatest event he had ever seen. In the booth as he called the Masters, he was on the air with Nick Faldo, the three-time Masters champion who heard Tiger speaking at the dinner in 2017, saying that his playing days were over, that injury was writing the end to his career. Now the two were watching as a jubilant Woods hugged his young children and pumped his fist in the air as the crowd roared his name, over and over again.
“I never thought we would see anything that could rival the hug with his father in 1997—but we just did,” said Nantz. “One of the great comebacks in any sport. All time.”
“I said, moons ago, if he can win his 15th that will be his greatest achievement. And after what he’s been through, he’s come pretty close to that,” said Faldo. “That will be the greatest scene in golf forever.”
Tiger Woods and the Masters—to be continued.