This story first appeared in the April 18, 2005, issue of Sports Illustrated.
The smile said it all, didn't it?
On Sunday evening Tiger Woods stood at the back of the 18th green at Augusta National, awaiting his fate. He had just frittered away a four-stroke lead during the final round of the 69th Masters, flailing to a bogey-bogey finish that he would delicately describe later as "throwing up" on himself. Woods had staggered up the hill to that final green, his labored gait revealing the cumulative toll of a nerve-jangling final nine, during which he and Chris DiMarco had seemed to be playing H-O-R-S-E with their sand wedges.
Now Woods had left the tournament in DiMarco's hands, in the form of a do-or-die six-foot putt to force sudden death. Moments earlier DiMarco had lipped out a chip, coming agonizingly close to a birdie that could have won the tournament--yet this pit bull in spikes refused to crack. Augusta National fairly shook when DiMarco drilled his pressure-packed par save, but Woods never flinched. Instead he flashed that big, beatific smile, a jarring sight given the enveloping tension of the moment. What was Woods thinking just then? "This is fun," he confided later.
No one in golf lives for the moment quite like Woods. With his lead slipping away, he had dealt DiMarco a body blow on the 16th hole with a seemingly impossible chip-in that instantly became one of the greatest shots in Masters history. On the first hole of sudden death, Augusta National's 18th, Woods finally landed the knockout punches. "For some reason I hit two of the best golf shots I hit all week," he said of the three-wood he busted into the narrow fairway and an eight-iron approach that covered the flag. With DiMarco in with a par, Woods faced a downhill 18-foot putt to win the Masters.
The 18th green at Augusta National is more than just a putting surface; it's the sport's grandest stage. Last year Phil Mickelson trod the boards, sinking a career-defining putt from a spot not far from where Woods's ball had come to rest. After Woods's victorious birdie putt disappeared into the cup, he loosed one of the most emotional celebrations of his career, but the overwhelming feeling was, he says, "validation."
Woods's triumph ended a much scrutinized 0-for-10 drought in the major championships. During those barren 34 months he had revamped his swing and overhauled the equipment in his bag, while also finding time to spend $1.5 million on a Caribbean wedding, donate $5 million to build an eponymous learning center in Southern California, buy a 155-foot yacht, take his first ski vacation, begin learning Swedish (the native tongue of his new bride, Elin) and buzz around South Florida looking for a new home closer to the Atlantic than his residence near Orlando. Along the way there were plenty of naysayers who whispered that the swing changes were a mistake and that maybe a domesticated Woods no longer had the focus to return to the top.
His victory last week silenced the critics and changed the sport's math. In recent months the golf world had been anticipating that this Masters would kick off a new era of parity among the so-called Big Four of Woods, Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els. But Woods's singular performance at Augusta reaffirmed what we've always known: There is Tiger, and then there's everybody else. You want a big four? Check out Woods's closet, because that's how many green jackets are hanging there.
Only Jack Nicklaus, with six, has more Masters titles, and with all due respect to DiMarco, last week was a reminder that Woods's only real competition is with Nicklaus's legacy of 18 major championship victories. This is Woods's ninth full season on Tour--yes, the onetime boy wonder turns 30 on Dec. 30--and he has nine majors and counting. At the end of his ninth year as a pro, Nicklaus had eight majors.
On Sunday evening a philosophical DiMarco put into words how much this Masters has restored Woods's aura. "You know, I went out and shot 68 on Sunday, which is a very good round, and 12 under is usually good enough to win," he said. "I just was playing against Tiger Woods."
This year's model differs in significant ways from recent versions. In March 2004 Woods began working with instructor Hank Haney to build a more cohesive swing during which he maintains the same plane on the backswing and downswing. Woods's new swing began to come together in late '04, and at the season-ending Tour Championship he made another significant change: He switched to a 460cc driver with a 45-inch graphite shaft, at long last joining the space race for distance.