Tiger Roars Again: Golf's Greatest Comeback Is Complete

Michael Rosenberg
Sports Illustrated

AUGUSTA, Ga. — On Sunday, April 7, four days before the Masters began and one day before the first official practice round, a 43-year-old father of two drove down Magnolia Lane. Some people see Augusta National Golf Club, with its power-broker members, as a locus for business, and others see it as the ultimate place of pleasure. For Tiger Woods, it is both.

Woods’s friend and business partner, Rob McNamara, rode shotgun. Woods prefers to drive, and McNamara usually navigates, but Woods did not need directions. He knows the place pretty well. As he would say a few days later, he had “four coats”—Tiger-ese for green jackets. Woods and McNamara got out of their car and met up with Tiger’s caddie, Joe LaCava. As the afternoon became the evening, Woods played the front nine at Augusta National the way nobody dreams of playing it.

He did not hit drives or approach shots. He just walked the front nine, and when he got near the green, he would throw a few balls down. He hit lob and sand wedges, and then he would practice his putting.

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Tiger Woods | Kohjiro Kinno
Tiger Woods | Kohjiro Kinno

A few years ago, when Woods’s back felt like it was loaded with explosives and a full golf swing could leave him writhing on the ground, this was the only kind of golf he could even try to play. Last week, it was his preference, part of a tactical mission. Woods cannot prepare for tournaments with the physical rigor he once did. But he could still prime his mind.

Augusta National favors long hitters and pure putters, but mostly it favors the wise. Woods says he has a “pretty good little library in my head of how to play the golf course,” but what separates him is that he remembers where all the books are, and he knows which one to pull off the shelf. Sometimes, even when he is playing another course, he hits a shot that reminds him of one at Augusta National. This winter and early spring, he failed to win a tournament. But he believed he was hitting the shots he would need to hit to win the event that matters most to him.

As he walked those nine holes, Woods saw the angles and trajectories and spins that even some of the best players in the world players can’t see. He left around 7:30 p.m. The stands were empty, the course serene, and Woods was pleased. McNamara says, “He enjoyed the peaceful quiet.” For a golfer who has struggled to reconcile his public and private lives, it was a well-deserved treat. That night, the course was his. Seven days later, Tiger would be ours again.

Tiger Woods won his fifth Masters, his 15th major, and his 81st PGA Tour event on Sunday, and these are astounding stats, all of them. But this is not math class, and Woods’s story is not really about numbers. It is about the way he makes you feel.

You, at home, getting up early to watch a rare Sunday morning final round of threesomes, instead of twosomes, because thunderstorms would arrive in the afternoon. You, the hundreds pressed against the ropes chanting “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!” a half hour after he had won, in a scene that was unlike any in memory here. You, whose dad took you to one of Tiger’s clinics when you were a kid in Minnesota, who got you hooked on golf, and who was there Thursday, between the third green and fourth tee, catching a glimpse of Tiger again: Hello, Larry Fitzgerald. You, wearing a mint-green Under Armour golf shirt and carrying a golf umbrella Sunday morning, finding a seat near the driving range to catch a glimpse of one of the few athletes who ever dominated the way you did: Hope you got a thrill, Michael Phelps.

You, standing alongside the 11th hole Saturday afternoon … do you remember what you did? Woods hit his drive so far to the right that when caddie Joe LaCava went to look, he could not find his golfer’s ball. He could also not find his golfer. In a sea of golf fans, Woods held up a driver and yelled “Joey! I’m on it right here.”

Woods wiped his face with a towel and looked down at his peculiar lie. Club officials had tried to make the course walkable for spectators by pouring a kitty-litter-like substance all over the place, to soak up the rain. Woods, the golf geek, loves talking about bent grass and poa annua and Bermuda and everything in between, but he does not spend much time practicing on Tidy Cats. He carved a draw around trees and onto the green, anyway. You roared, and a few of you stopped at his divot and rubbed the cat litter with your hands.

Tiger Woods | No. 11 | Kohjiro Kinno
Tiger Woods | No. 11 | Kohjiro Kinno

And you, the girl and boy bouncing along under the massive oak tree outside the clubhouse as Woods was about to tee off Sunday, escorted by Tiger’s girlfriend, Erica Herman, dressed in your daddy’s trademark Sunday red and black … Sam and Charlie Woods, we know he is just your dad to you, and that’s all he wants to be. But wow, have we got a story to tell you.

There was this guy called Tiger. He was supposed to win 25 majors by now. It’s probably for the best that he didn’t.

He was a breathtaking athlete, controlling the least controllable sport, executing shots nobody else would even try. Bobby Jones famously said Jack Nicklaus “played a game with which I am not familiar.” Woods was the next evolution. He won one major by 12 strokes and another by 15. He won a U.S. Open on a broken leg and a Masters with a preposterous chip-in. He de-pantsed the whole sport.

He loved the game and we loved to watch him, and that kept us together. But he dominated so ruthlessly, and so thoroughly, that eventually we probably would have gotten tired of it. He played entire rounds without acknowledging spectators and flew through entire press conferences without saying anything memorable. He was a hard man to get to know, an even harder one to understand.

A lot has happened since then. Some of it was covered by tabloids and most of the rest can be found in his medical records. But Woods has pulled off a feat that seemed impossible when he was at his peak. He became relatable.


This is Sam and Charlie’s dad now: polite, expansive, and grateful … so, so grateful. He tips his cap so often, we can draw his receding hairline from memory. He has stopped having his caddie bark at fans and started filling his rounds with small gestures. When he got in trouble on No. 17 Thursday, and a marshal asked if fans were far enough back, Woods reassured him: “Yeah, they’re cool.” As he walked off the 15th tee Sunday, with a chance to make history, he chatted quietly with Tony Finau, one of his playing partners. After a police officer stepped on his foot while trying to contain a crowd Friday, Woods publicly reassured him: “It's all good. Accidents happen.”

Woods lets us in now. Not too far. But he lets us in. Those who see him often, in less public settings, say he is what he never was early in his career: a golfer at peace. Human interactions no longer feel transactional. Fellow players of different generations adore him. Woods followed up his Sunday night pre-Masters pitch-and-putt session by playing the back nine, tee to green, on Monday, with two of his buddies: 59-year-old Couples and 26-year-old Justin Thomas. On Wednesday those three played the front nine, with 35-year-old Kevin Kisner as the fourth.

It was all the preparation Woods needed. He went out the next day and shot a two-under 70, even though he didn’t putt well. Storm sirens pulled him off the course on the back nine Friday, but then he caught a break. The rain stopped. He could finish Friday, saving his high-maintenance body the trouble of an early weekend double.

Woods was methodically moving up the leaderboard, one goosebump at a time. He was in the penultimate group Friday, and so every time he finished a hole, the fans left that part of the course, following him back up the hill to No. 17, and then to No. 18 and finally out the gates. It had the feel of sand falling through an hourglass. But sometimes there is more sand left than you think.

Woods said it at least three times during Masters week, but let’s say it again: He did not expect to be our Tiger Woods again. When he underwent Anterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion surgery in April 2017, he wasn’t even thinking about golf. He just wanted to be dad to Sam (who is now 11) and Charlie (10). He wanted to live, he says, “a normal life.”

The surgery worked so well that he started playing again, and he played so well that he started believing again. With his normal life restored, he slipped back into his abnormal life.

Tiger Woods | No. 15 | Kohjiro Kinno; Al Tielemans
Tiger Woods | No. 15 | Kohjiro Kinno; Al Tielemans

Even when Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka went on historically great runs, the biggest name on the PGA Tour was always Tiger. Now? It’s Tigermania again. Minutes before Woods teed off with Ian Poulter Saturday, Poulter walked under that big oak tree toward No. 1 and nobody noticed. Then Woods walked through, the crowd erupted, and Alex Rodriguez turned his head.

Woods might seem like the same golfer he once was. He isn’t. The young Tiger was so much longer than his peers that there was talk of “Tiger-proofing” courses; Sunday, Finau bombed it past him. But Woods has maintained the two qualities that separate him from just about anybody ever: his deft hands and his agile mind.

Does anybody in sports organize his thoughts like this guy? After his round on Saturday, Woods remembered exactly what the leaderboard looked like when he was on the fifth hole. He has been known to spend entire rounds locked in, blinders on, then tell a friend afterward, “I saw you on No. 4.”

Three men made the short walk from the 11th green to the 12th tee on Sunday. Finau and Francesco Molinari examined their hands. Woods was counting cards. He trailed Molinari by two strokes with seven to play, but he did not think he needed to start making birdies. He knew that Brooks Koepka, in the group ahead of him, had put his ball in Rae’s Creek in front of the 12th green, and he figured that Koepka had hit a 9-iron toward the back-right pin, and he knew that Koepka hits it longer than he does, and so he decided he could still hit a nine-iron, but he better hit it hard and keep it left of the flag, over “the tongue of the bunker,” make his par and get out of there. And that’s what he did. Molinari and Finau found the creek and each made double-bogey.

Woods is such a master recovery artist that he has won majors when he drove the ball poorly. This week, most of his drives were as stress-free as the one down Magnolia Lane. He hit a perfect draw on No. 13 and made birdie. He looked up at the leaderboard, at Koepka and Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele chasing him, and he channeled that old Tiger mindset: “Whatever they do, I'll just birdie the same holes. Then it's a moot point.” As though making birdie were a choice anybody can just make on Sunday at the Masters.

On No. 15, Molinari found the rough, a tree and the water to excuse himself from contention. Woods went to the library. On Thursday and Saturday, he had yelled “Get down! Get down!” at his approaches on 15, only to see them roll off the green. On Sunday, he stopped making requests and started giving orders. His shot landed on the green and stayed there, like a good little ball. Two-putt, birdie, one-stroke lead, hysteria.

Woods grew up in California and has lived in Florida for two decades, but this was a home game for him. Fans did not cheer the mistakes of other golfers, but there were a few gasps when Molinari dared to take the lead from Woods on Saturday.

At Augusta National, the only cutting-edge technology is in the golfers’ bags. The course famously bans cell phones. Fans must get their news from leaderboards and their ears. It is antiquated and delightful. On Sunday, the folks around No. 17 knew that the first cheer coming from No. 16 had to be because Woods put his tee shot close, and the second cheer had to be because he sank the birdie putt to go to 14-under and take a two-stroke lead. But everybody wanted a second source. They looked up, and waited … and waited …

The leaderboard operator pulled back the row of squares next to Woods’s name to insert a number, and waited … and waited … and waited … waited so long, it had to be intentional. Then the row slammed shut, harder than any leaderboard row had been slammed all week, the operator’s equivalent of spiking a football. There was a 14 on Woods’s line, and a roar that felt straight out of 2002. Augusta National can make you feel like time stands still. Woods knows better.

Golfers compete for longer than other athletes, and so famous golfers do not just have careers and then fade from memory. They live their lives in front of us. Earl Woods, Tiger’s dad, used to hold court here. He is gone now. Tida Woods, his mom, used to walk 18 holes a day, and for many years she had a tradition of walking here on Sundays with Nike founder Phil Knight. Tida walked nine holes a day last week. Some in Woods’ entourage wondered if the 82-year-old Knight might show up Sunday. He did not.

Of the 46 players who made the cut when Woods won his first Masters, only two—Tiger and 61-year-old two-time champ Bernhard Langer—made it this year. Rob Johnston, the longtime Augusta National member who has handled most of Woods’s media gatherings here since 1997, was at the club again this year. But Woods’s first two caddies, Fluff Cowan and Steve Williams, were not.

The golf world hops from course to course and continent to continent, but Augusta National is where it holds reunions. Woods said he notices the same faces in the same places year after year. And then there are those he knows personally, like Amy Bartlett, Nike’s global sports marketing director. She has worked with Woods for more than a decade, but the last major he won was the first she attended: the 2008 U.S. Open. Golf fans remember Woods sinking a downhill 12-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to force an 18-hole playoff the next day. Bartlett remembers that she didn’t have a fresh red shirt for the playoff. When she sent it to be laundered at the Lodge at Torrey Pines that night, she worried it would shrink or be otherwise ruined, along with her career.

Now it’s as though Woods himself came back from the laundry, looking nicer and cleaner but still like he did before. Everybody here remembered how he was back then. Molinari said when Woods won in ’97, “I was in front of a TV, for sure. I cannot remember, to be honest, if I stayed up until the end, because we all knew how it was going to end.”

There was no way to know that Sunday. Woods had held at least a share of the 54-hole lead in each of his first 14 major victories. This was the first time he had to come back. But that, too, was fitting. On and off the leaderboard, he no longer runs away from his peers.

He still knows how to finish, though. Woods needed a 5 on the par-4 18th and he played it so 5 was the worst score he could make. He had spent the afternoon adding to his library: “I hit some of the best shots on that back nine today. You know, I felt like I just flushed it coming home, which was a nice feeling.”

 

Tiger Woods | No. 18 | Kohjiro Kinno
Tiger Woods | No. 18 | Kohjiro Kinno

He had won this tournament first as a son and now as a father. He had gone from phenom to cyborg to the man he wanted to be. He managed to save the best parts of himself while shedding his least appealing qualities. There is no stat for that.  

Woods was on 17 when Sam and Charlie emerged from the clubhouse. They are not like their dad: when they go to Augusta National, they need McNamara to show them around. They had never been there before. They tried to head left. McNamara said, "This way!" and took them to the right, where they finally just climbed over a chain and down a path, and they stood just behind the TV towers on 18, waiting for daddy to get off work. Woods—who once said his ideal foursome would just be a twosome, him and his dad—putted out for his Masters-sealing 5, ripped a double-fist pump, and hugged Tida and Sam and Charlie.

Several young PGA Tour stars watched the finish in the clubhouse. They grew up watching Tiger win majors, then they got to know him, and on Sunday they combined the experiences. In a bar in the clubhouse, Justin Thomas sat with family and friends; Thomas had made a hole-in-one on No. 16 Sunday, so he bought a round of drinks. Thomas was asked about the practice rounds with Tiger. Nothing stood out as unusual, except for who was playing, and where.

“I’m not surprised he won,” Thomas said. “He always plays well here.”

When Woods emerged after signing his scorecard, Thomas, Koepka, Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson and Mike Weir were among those who greeted him. This is not a normal scene. But this was not a normal week. Twenty-two years ago, Woods had signed a flag here TO FLUFF, THE NO. 1 CADDIE IN THE WORLD. This time, LaCava walked out carrying a flagstick. He has now won the Masters with three different caddies. He could probably win without one.

Herman told Koepka’s mother, Denise Jankows, “your son almost gave me a heart attack.”

Woods told Watson, “I’m not crying yet.”

“You will be,” Watson said.

Tiger Woods and caddie Joe LaCava (right) | Al Tielemans
Tiger Woods and caddie Joe LaCava (right) | Al Tielemans

He had a second red shirt that he didn’t need, and a fifth green coat that he also didn’t need but will happily wear. There was, as you might expect, more math: questions about whether Tiger can break Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors. He wouldn’t go there Sunday. And naturally, there were comparisons to Ben Hogan’s comeback from a car wreck and broken bones, and Nicklaus’s stunning win in 1986, at age 46. (“He probably feels older than Jack did in ’86,” Watson said.)

Those are just discussion topics, though. They are not his story. It doesn’t matter if Woods’s win is bigger than Nicklaus’s or if his comeback is better than Hogan’s. He seems to understand that implicitly.

Tiger Woods celebrates his fifth Masters win | Kohjiro Kinno 
Tiger Woods celebrates his fifth Masters win | Kohjiro Kinno 

Around 4 p.m., most of Woods’ closest supporters climbed in a pair of Mercedes SUVs in the champions’ parking lot. Some of what filled the cars would have looked familiar to a 21-year Woods (clubs, suitcase, flagstick) and some would not (his launch monitor, Sam, Charlie.)

Rain fell gently on Augusta National. How much time had passed? Seven days, 14 years, a lifetime. This is where he took ownership of the sport, in 1997, and where he completed the Tiger Slam, in 2001. It is where his ailing father Earl watched him win in 2005—the old man flew to Georgia against his doctors’ wishes. He died 13 months later. This is where former Augusta National chairman Billy Payne lectured him in public after his infidelities, and where he felt safe returning to competitive golf anyway. And now it is where he hugged Sam and Charlie after his 15th major, and where they finally got to witness the hold this game has on their pops, and the hold he has on the rest of us.

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