For all his fist-pumping successes over the years, Tiger Woods has always been a cool, bordering on cold, customer, a man who guards his feelings like a miser his loose change.
On Sunday at the Masters, 11 years after his last major victory and 14 years after his last victory at Augusta National, the 43-year-old finally removed the bars that had held him back for so long. He knocked in a short putt to win the tournament by a stroke, then let out yell after yell, offered hug after hug and, yes, pumped fist after fist. It was a victory lap of sheer joy.
There was so much in all of that emotion. There was happiness. There was perseverance in the face of pain and ugliness. And there was the distinct feeling that some things are simply meant to be and that, in the face of it, perhaps it’s better to just get out of the way.
After trailing by two strokes with seven holes left, he now stood victorious on the 18th green, shook a fist, then raised both arms in celebration and finally went looking for people to embrace. He hugged his son. He hugged his mom. He hugged his daughter. He hugged his girlfriend. Given the feeling and power behind those Tiger hugs, how any of his loved ones could still breathe afterward is for science to sort out.
And as he walked to sign his scorecard, with the crowd chanting, “Tiger, Tiger, Tiger,’’ he let out a primal, “Woooooo!” I think that scream was specifically aimed at his 2017 spinal-fusion surgery, which had left him thinking his competitive career was over. Having been to golf hell, here he was, if not in heaven, then at least at Augusta National, which the sport considers the next-best thing.
“It’s overwhelming, I think just because of what’s transpired,’’ he said minutes after winning. “Last year, I was just very lucky to be playing again.’’
It has been a long, arduous road back to the top. His last major victory had been the 2008 U.S. Open. His last Masters victory had been in 2005. That gap between Masters titles is the longest in tournament history.
It was his fifth green jacket and 15th major victory. In terms of majors, he trails only Jack Nicklaus, who has 18 to his name. Go ahead and dust off the “Will Tiger catch Jack?’’ discussions. Sunday’s achievement announced that, from now on, no sports-talk-show topic can ever again be considered tired or ridiculous.
The tournament turned on the par-3 12th hole, where Francesco Molinari, leading by two strokes, put his ball in Rae’s Creek. That reinforced Woods’ confidence that he could win the tournament. As for Molinari, he should have packed a wetsuit. He double-bogeyed both the 12th and the 15th after hitting balls into the water.
There was no doubt which golfer the massive galleries wanted to win.
“You can definitely tell the difference between a roar for me and a roar for Tiger,’’ Dustin Johnson said afterward.
Woods could smell victory, could taste it, could touch it. He led by one stroke heading into the par-3 16th. He hit an 8-iron to the right of the pin and watched the ball roll and roll and roll some more toward the hole.
“Come on,’’ he implored, over and over.
The ball obeyed before stopping about four feet from the hole. His birdie putt gave him a two-stroke lead over Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele.
When Koepka missed a birdie putt on 17, it meant that Woods, standing on the 18th fairway, needed only a bogey five to win the tournament.
He made a bogey five to win the tournament by a stroke.
Few people had envisioned him standing where he stood Sunday afternoon, on the 18th green with a fifth Masters title in his possession. There had been too much history, too much baggage. There was the 2017 back surgery. There were three other back surgeries over the years. There was a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. There were three knee surgeries. There were stress fractures in his left tibia.
Then there were the issues in his personal life — the 2009 scandal involving marital infidelities, the treatment for sex addiction and the fall from grace that cost him millions of dollars in sponsorships. Oh, and a prescription-drug problem.
Sunday proved that there was still a great golfer somewhere underneath all of that scar tissue.
A long, messy journey ended improbably on a patch of green grass in Augusta, Ga. Perhaps that’s why the beginning of his celebration was a bit of a blur for him afterward.
“When I tapped the putt in, I don’t know what I did, but I know I screamed,’’ he said.
He did. He pumped a fist, too, and the crowd roared for the man who wears a red shirt during final rounds because his mother thinks it’s a power color.
After a 14-year separation, the green jacket and the red shirt have been reunited. They still look good together.
“It fits,’’ Woods said as he put on the coat.
Perfectly, as a matter of fact.