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Nineteen months on, the temptation is to depict Tiger Woods’ fifth Masters triumph as sport’s answer to a supernova, a final luminous explosion of a collapsing star. To watch his dewy-eyed reminiscences last night about the events of April 14, 2019, which heralded golf’s most stunningly improbable revival, was to wonder if even he viewed his victory in such terms. As he compared it to his first Augusta win in 1997, as a 21-year-old, he reflected: “Last year was more emotional. To come full circle from being with my dad, to see my son there and to share the same embrace, 22 years apart? Pretty good bookends.”
Talk of “bookends” suggests a man merely hoping, rather than expecting, to script a fitting encore. Since the euphoria of his 15th major title, and the suggestions that he was ready to chase down Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 once more, Woods has seldom threatened to produce a conjuring trick to match. Of the five chances he has had to add a 16th, he has missed the cut three times. The question is how much this matters to him any longer, since he has already bequeathed a moment of which even his most ardent believers had abandoned hope. After those unforgettable scenes behind the 18th green, it is a stretch to argue that he has left anybody wanting more.
“I’m still getting chills just thinking about it,” Woods said. “Those feelings, coming up the 18th, knowing that all I had to do was to two-putt that little 15-footer, to see my mum, my kids, all the people who were there for me in the tough times. I was walking up there trying not to lose it. Then I walked off the back of the green, saw Charlie there, and we just opened our arms. It meant a lot to me and it still does. It makes me a little teary.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a player just five years away from eligibility for the senior tour, Woods is not only looking older, but sounding it. His quavering voice shows that he no longer perceives winning as a fait accompli. He acknowledges that on holes he would once approach with wedges, he reaches these days for a medium-iron. He talks nostalgically about an Augusta career that has spanned a quarter of a century, since his debut as a “punk college kid” in 1995, when he putted off the green on the first. Is he, in short, going soft on us? While his pre-tournament press conferences tend to be strictly business, delivering only ominous statements of intent, this one felt more like a cosy fireside chat.
His hosts lapped it up, naturally. Even as a few patches of autumnal rust creep into the immaculately green colour palette, Augusta remains a place geared towards remembrance and ritual. Woods kept up one cherished tradition last night by preparing the champion’s dinner, a menu of steak and chicken fajitas washed down with a couple of Napa Valley classics in a nod to his Californian heritage. Here, too, he could enjoy a powerful sense of time passing. For it was during this same annual sit-down in 2017 that he whispered to Sir Nick Faldo: “I’m done.” Three years on, he is restored as the master of all he surveys.
Courtesy of Covid-19, Woods has relished the longest reign of any Masters champion. He returns to confront a world transformed, where the rolling echoes of the galleries are replaced by the faint rustling of leaves across an eerily empty course. There will, even in the event he wins, be no mass family gathering this time, with virus restrictions limiting him to only two guests: his girlfriend, Erica Herman, and his lifelong friend Rob McNamara, who acts as an unofficial swing coach.
“It’s not how I wanted it, to retain the jacket for this long,” he said. “I wanted to earn it back in April. These are unprecedented circumstances we’re all dealing with. I may never have the opportunity to take the jacket off the property again.”
For all that he has grown far more conscious of his fading powers, Woods is not one for being fatalistic about his Masters prospects. While the expectation is that Bryson DeChambeau will bludgeon Augusta into submission, the five-time champion understands how the course rewards experience like no other, with Fred Couples and Bernhard Langer able to be competitive long into their golfing dotage. “Do I expect to contend? Yes I do,” he smiled. “It can be done. Understanding how to hit the shots around here and where to miss it helps. But it will be a very different experience, very stark, in terms of what we see and what we hear. I just hope I can figure it out and replicate what I did last year.”
On that occasion, his feat was so astounding that he would soon be rewarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As those memories simmer again to the surface, Woods dares to strive for a repeat. The one certainty is that even the ghostliest of Masters will be electrified by his very presence.