AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods won his 15th major championship title at the Masters last year. But you knew that. And you knew it was his first major in 11 years. And you knew it was his fifth Masters victory. And you knew 14 years had passed since he last won a green jacket. And, of course, you knew it was his 81st PGA Tour victory.
It was an amazing week for Woods, who just two years earlier feared his competitive golf career was over due to numerous back issues that required spinal fusion surgery.
You knew that, too.
But here’s what you might not have known about the circumstances and events surrounding that week 19 months ago at Augusta National.
The 2018 win at the Tour Championship in Atlanta was a big boost for Woods’ confidence, but the 2019 Masters was a long way in the future. Serious preparation didn’t begin until January, and Woods had a nice run of events at the Farmers Insurance Open (T-20), Genesis Open (T-15), WGC-Mexico Championship (T-10), Players Championship (T-31) and WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play (T-5). That’s five events, but in the stroke-play tournaments, Woods never finished closer than 8 strokes to the winner.
And caddie Joe LaCava was unsure if Woods had played enough golf to be competitive at the Masters.
“Personally, I wasn’t quite sure he had enough tournament rounds,” LaCava said. “We had a pretty light schedule going in. Having said that, I know when he’s not feeling well. I think he knew he needed to save up some energy and it was more important for him to be rested and get his back worked on versus playing tournament golf. Easy to say now because he won the thing. But I thought we needed one or two more tournaments to be a little sharper going in.”
Woods’ friend and right-hand man Rob McNamara played a practice round at Augusta National with Woods on April 3, 2019, the Wednesday prior to tournament week and a few days after Woods’ quarterfinal loss at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. Woods shot a 65 that day — with a three-putt bogey on the first hole.
But one of the keys to the week was the late-afternoon Sunday arrival on April 7, after most had left the course. Woods, McNamara and LaCava headed to the first tee, where Woods brought along just a wedge and a putter.
“Ballstriking wise, he was way ahead of where he was [a year prior] coming into the last couple of months,” McNamara said. “All year he [had been driving] the ball and really struck the ball extremely well. It was just scoring. Short game and putting. I started to see a change once he started pitching it really close and tight. That was some of that work on Sunday night. Just taking a wedge around. He knew it was about pitches and chips and controlling your distance and your speed and your spin. He started getting dialed in and had a nice feel. I think that carried him through.”
In recent years, Woods has taken a less-is-more approach to his practice prior to tournaments, especially the big ones. He likes to play nine holes and seeks the right balance between getting ready and overdoing it. Sometimes, it seems, he doesn’t see the course enough. So there was a bit of wonder when Woods decided not to play a practice round on the Tuesday prior to the Masters.
“The best move I made the entire week was to not go out and play on that Tuesday,” Woods said. “The rain had come in and the greens had slowed up. They didn’t quite cut them. The golf course was playing slower. I knew they would speed it up come Thursday. That was the best thing I could have done.”
Woods played a practice round on the day prior to the tournament with Fred Couples and Justin Thomas. And what happened at the ninth hole came in handy during the final round on Sunday, when Woods faced a dicey two-putt from 50 feet, a downhill effort that he lagged to within inches to save par.
“It was huge,” LaCava said. “He hits it way back to that top shelf. Back left, the third tier. The pin is front left. And the funny thing is when we finished up on Wednesday with JT and Fred, Tiger dropped a ball and they had a little closest-to contest. He dropped the ball a foot from where he hit it on Sunday. And the pin was a foot from where it was on Sunday.
“Now listen, I don’t think that’s ever an easy two-putt. But it’s certainly way easier on Wednesday with nothing on the line than Sunday. But I think it helped a little bit. He had a good look at it Wednesday, believe it or not. You drop 10 balls there, you’re going to hit two that close. You’ll leave one up top. You might hit one off the green. You’re going to three-putt three times. And for him to hit it to like a tap-in was huge.”
Woods had struggled to stay close to Francesco Molinari, who kept scrambling to maintain his lead. Tiger finally got within 1 shot when he knocked his ball close at the par-4 seventh.
Because of the early start due to the threat of bad weather, Woods had not seen his kids, Sam and Charlie, before he teed off. They had made plans to arrive Sunday morning. And they almost didn’t come at all.
Had his daughter Sam’s soccer team won its semifinal tournament game a day earlier in Florida, there would have been no trip to Augusta for her. And not for Charlie, either. They would have stayed home and watched on TV. Instead, they had their first opportunity to see their dad in his Sunday red at the Masters — having previously been to Augusta National only one time for the 2015 Par 3 Contest.
But when Woods struck his tee shot at the first hole just after 9:20 a.m. ET, he was unsure if they had arrived.
“I didn’t know until I got to [No.] 7 and I had that little tap-in for birdie, and I see Charlie is jumping up and down,” Woods said. “And I thought, ‘Good, they made it; they made it.’ And I didn’t see them the rest of the day until 18.”
Webb Simpson never felt like he gave himself much of a chance to win the Masters, and eventually finished 2 shots back. But he had a great seat for the action. He played in the group in front of Woods along with Brooks Koepka and Ian Poulter — and was the lone player in his threesome not to find the creek at the 12th.
And when both Molinari and Tony Finau found Rae’s Creek, it was game on as Tiger was about to be tied for the lead.
“It was cool,” Simpson said. “You could feel how much everybody wanted Tiger to win. My crowd … there was like eight of them. When I made birdie on 13, there was like eight claps. Everybody else was cheering for Tiger. And honestly that was the first time at Augusta where I heard anyone cheer for a water ball. They cheered for Molinari’s and Finau’s water ball because it meant Tiger had a better chance. They were all excited.
“When I was on 13 [tee] waiting to hit, I turned around to see Tiger on the [12th] green. That’s when I think as a player, you remove yourself for a second, and you take in the moment. And I did that. I grew up watching him. In ’97, I was there for a practice round. And then it’s his Sunday red on the 12th green of Augusta, maybe the most famous picture in golf. It was cool. I told myself, ‘You’re competing against Tiger Woods in the Masters.’ This is a childhood dream. So I took that in.”
Despite his double bogey at the 12th, Molinari was still very much in the tournament. In fact, he was tied with Woods as they teed off on the par-5 15th, with just four holes to play as they had both birdied the 13th hole and parred the 14th.
But Molinari made a double at 15 when his third shot clipped a tree limb, causing his ball to dive into the pond in front of the green. With so much going on around the finishing holes, CBS had missed his second shot from the right rough, a layup that went too far into the left rough. Woods birdied the hole and led by 1 for the first time.
“The unraveling for me started on the 15th tee box,” Molinari said. “I hit it right out into the trees. I just had like a childish moment. I was literally standing over my driver and I thought, ‘Holy crap, I’m leading the Masters.’ Which is cool, but at the same time, fake it ’til you make it. Act like you’ve been there. And I didn’t. I could have easily stepped off and kind of regrouped, but I pulled the trigger and hit it into the trees and I was scrambling for par on 15.
“I should have hit a better second shot. The 12th hole that day was playing particularly tough, especially with the wind, and a few guys in front of us hit the ball into the water, too. So, [the shot at 12] can happen. Because after that I birdied 13 and had a good chance at 14. So I was still in it, tied with Tiger, so 15 was the blow that kind of stopped my round.
“I was on the [pine] needles on the right and I had to hit a low shot because I had some tree limbs in front of me. So I tried to chip a 4-iron down the hill and I was trying to get to the left side because I thought to that flag I would be like chipping up the hill. But I just hit my second shot probably 5 yards too far. And then I had the branches of the tree in front of me.”
The shot that helped seal the tournament for Woods was his 8-iron at the par-3 16th, the one that flew toward the right side of the green, landed on a slope, kicked left and gained momentum toward the hole. It stopped a few feet away for a birdie that gave him a 2-shot advantage.
“We’re on the 17th tee, Tiger hits and lands it on the hill and it starts trickling,” Simpson said. “We have a perfect view. Crowd is so excited. They want it to go in. It looks like it’s going in. And [Simpson’s caddie] Paul [Tesori] turns around and looks at me and says, ‘What if this went in?’ It was one of those moments you’ll never forget. The crowd is so loud they’re oblivious to everyone on the tee. That was a cool moment, too.”
The last time Woods was in this position at the Masters — a 2-shot lead with two holes to play in 2005 — he bogeyed both the 17th and 18th holes to fall into a playoff he won over Chris DiMarco.
There was still work to be done after the 16th-hole birdie.
“The tee shot he hit on 17 I think was everything for me,” said Justin Rose, who watched the final round from home after missing the cut. “That’s just a tee shot that you can’t hide from. It’s straightaway. It’s like you either hit it straight or you’re in the trees. With a 2-shot lead, 17 was the only hole that could have really made it difficult for him. So that was cool to see.”
Woods laced his tee shot into the fairway, and knocked his approach to 10 feet, narrowly missing a birdie putt. He went to the 18th tee with a 2-shot advantage.
After Woods holed the winning par putt, he raised his arms in triumph and then eventually headed off the green through a chute to the scoring area, where cheering and chanting rang in his ears.
Near the clubhouse, a group of several players including past champions Bernhard Langer, Trevor Immelman, Zach Johnson and Bubba Watson all waited for him wearing their green jackets.
Other players were there, too, including Koepka, Poulter and Xander Schauffele — who tied for second along with Koepka and Dustin Johnson.
“I wanted to congratulate him,” Schauffele said. “I didn’t know him very well at the time but I know him a little bit better since he was the playing captain in the Presidents Cup. It was a sight to see. Augusta is known for being very quiet and reserved, traditional, and it was a circus when Tiger came off that 18th hole. I think every green jacket [Augusta National member] loved it. It was something that hasn’t occurred there too often.”
Due to the weather issues, originally there was not supposed to be a second ceremony on the putting green, as is custom. Usually numerous chairs are set up for Augusta National members and various golf dignitaries to watch the ceremony unfold, with chairman Fred Ridley offering various remarks before the defending champion puts the jacket on the new one. That didn’t happen in 2019.
After the Butler Cabin ceremony took place as scheduled for the CBS audience, Woods had a pared-down ceremony on the 18th green, with Patrick Reed putting the jacket on him, Woods being handed the Masters trophy, and a long photo session taking place to the cheers of onlookers.
“When I was done [playing], sitting there and waiting and watching it unfold, and then see Tiger make the putt to win, it was inspiring,” Reed said. “To put the jacket on him was unbelievable. The only thing I could think of when I did that was to not mess it up. I reminded myself to make sure I put the jacket on him correct. And we got that job done. But it was a special moment.
“Growing up and watching him win everything and how dominant he was and the focus and energy he had, and the talent he had was just unbelievable. It definitely drove me and others to push really hard and try to get to that kind of level. I know I grinded harder and worked harder because I saw Tiger do what he did.”
After conducting his media interviews, Woods went to the Champions locker room — where he shares a locker with 1956 champion Jackie Burke, the oldest living Masters champion.
And then, in a twist, he had his green jacket tailored, a process that took about 90 minutes. During that time, Woods headed back to the Butler Cabin for a 15-minute interview with CBS’ Jim Nantz that aired during the rebroadcast of the final round. There was a cocktail party in the clubhouse and then a reception in the Founders Room that included a moving speech by Woods to the members. He later posed for photos with everyone who asked.
Because the day began so early, Woods emerged from all of his obligations to a different scene than the one he had encountered at each of his previous four Masters victories. Instead of darkness, there still was light.
“I have never seen the golf course empty like that,” Woods said. “I was out there with Sam and Charlie and I said, ‘This is what Augusta National is like.’ You see the beauty of it. The rolling hills. The perfect grass. It was immaculate.
“It’s so different when nobody is out there. That’s when they started to understand how beautiful the place is.”
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