AUGUSTA, Ga. – It was only a matter of time for Tiger Woods.
He knew he could win big again as soon as he knew he was physically able to play golf again, and he won big Sunday at Augusta National.
It could have happened at Carnoustie or Bellerive, but it didn’t.
It happened Sunday at the Masters and now Woods is right back where he started here in 1997 – On top of the world with a green jacket on his shoulders and no end to his greatness in sight.
“This has meant so much to me and my family, this tournament, and to have everyone here, it’s something I’ll never, ever forget,” Woods said.
No one who watched up close or from home will ever forget where they were on this day, perhaps the most dramatic ever at Augusta National.
It was Woods’ 15th career major victory, first in 11 years and first ever without a lead to start the final round.
It was definitely worth the wait.
The anticipatory roars as Woods’ tee shot at the par-3 16th tracked closer and closer to the hole, the fans jumping up and down to get a momentary glimpse.
The look in Woods’ eyes and the sound of his driver as he boomed it down the 17th fairway, confident and in control of his own destiny.
The endless roars as he approached the 18th green. The pure joy and celebration that followed.
“We did it,” Woods told caddie Joe LaCava after he tapped in for bogey to win by one shot at 13 under.
“No, you did it,” LaCava said.
— Masters Tournament (@TheMasters) April 14, 2019
They weren’t just talking about the past four days. Woods has been getting ready for the Masters for six months. And he’s been preparing for this moment ever since returning to competition post-spinal fusion at the Hero World Challenge in December 2017.
He had no swing, no equipment specs, no schedule and no idea if he could be competitive again. He basically built a new career from scratch in about 17 months, and somehow it was good enough to win the Masters.
“He’s a very confident person and always thought he could do it,” LaCava said.
Big picture it all happened very quickly, but the day-by-day process to get here was as grueling and slow as it gets.
Then again, what is time, exactly? It became a very blurry concept on the back nine, particularly after Francesco Molinari rinsed his ball at No. 12 to open the door. It was early afternoon at Augusta but the final group was through Amen Corner. Tiger Woods was in the lead at 43 years old, patrolling the grounds with perfect posture and eyes fixated exactly as they’ve always been despite all they’ve seen.
With no cellphones to glance at, no clocks in sight and no evidence at Augusta that any time has even passed over the past two decades, it was the colors that stood out most – a bright red shirt against a perfect green backdrop commanding every second of attention.
The look of disbelief in fans’ eyes as Woods walked up the 18th fairway was special.
It was happening. The dream scenario. Woods was about to win the Masters again, and you couldn’t take your eyes off it.
Actor Jon Hamm wore a childlike gaze near the 18th green, just another face in the crowd, amazed they were able to beat the afternoon thunderstorms and let this Don Draper-worthy drama unfold.
“I’m so stoked,” Hamm said. “Getting it in before whatever happens happens, and then to have this happen, is bonkers. … It’s so fun to be a part of.”
Everyone wanted to be a part of the aftermath. Fans swarmed outside the clubhouse. Inside, Woods’ girlfriend Erica Herman sat in a tightly-secured lounge. Rickie Fowler’s fiancée Allison Stokke briefly talked her way in from the grill room to hand her a drink – a brightly-colored azalea cocktail with gin, grenadine and pineapple juice.
Outside, LaCava leaned on the open trunk of Woods’ SUV and guarded a not-so-well-kept secret – the flagstick from the 18th hole, lying vertically in the back of the trunk over a second set of seats next to the Trackman.
He and Woods talked this week about staying loose, but never losing the intensity. LaCava acknowledged that Woods was a little more “jacked up” Sunday but stayed patient. He did that even after a bogey at No. 5 left him three shots back, waiting for his time.
Woods worked hard at drawing the ball off the tee last offseason, knowing he’d need to do that in order to win this week. After going to a stock high fade that was useful throughout the FedEx Cup Playoffs run and good enough to win the Tour Championship, Woods knew he needed to work it both ways off the tee to win at Augusta.
You could see it at the Hero World Challenge last December in the Bahamas. Woods finished second-to-last, but the driver looked and sounded different. He was hitting booming tee shots on a lower trajectory, trying to shape a variety of shots. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but that’s what happens when you’re deep in the process.
The driver cooperated most of the week at Augusta National, where he showed he’s still the best irons player on the planet and led the field in greens in regulation.
It was that process more than a four-day performance LaCava referred to as “scrappy” that led Woods to this moment, along with his unmatched self-belief.
“You never give up. That’s a given. You always fight,” Woods said. “Giving up is never in the equation. … That’s just part of the deal. We wake up every morning and there’s always challenges in front of us, and keep fighting and keep getting through.”
While Woods headed to meet with media at his champions press conference, long-time confidant and defacto swing advisor Rob McNamara greeted LaCava at the car.
“We’ve got a party to go to,” McNamara said.
A space had been set up for the team at Butler Cabin.
The work had been done.
The moment golf fans have dreamed about for years had come and gone in the blink of an eye.
It was time to celebrate.