AUGUSTA, Ga. — The mood was tense on Sunday afternoon in the Augusta National clubhouse. Jordan Spieth wandered through, glanced at a TV and bugged out his eyes, cartoon-style. “It’s getting diiiicey,” he said. Tiger Woods was tied for the lead at the Masters with four holes to play. You could feel it in your gut. Mark Steinberg paced nervously outside the locker room. He has been by his client’s side for the most dominant golf ever played, the most salacious scandal of the Internet age and everything in between. If Tiger could somehow get it done, would it be the greatest victory of his career?
“Greatest victory or greatest accomplishment?” Steinberg parried. “They’re not the same thing.” He voted for the latter.
One by one players wandered off the course, bit actors in the unfolding drama. Kevin Na raced into the locker room to monitor the action. Like Woods, Na is a Southern California kid, and they have long been close. Francesco Molinari, having messed up both his drive and layup on the 15th hole, plunked his third shot into the pond in front of the green, a calamitous turn of events that ensured Woods would take the lead.
“Nooooo! He’s dead. It’s over for him!” Na shouted.“Ohmygawd, Tiger is gonna win. Woooow. This is crazy! Ohmygawd. I’m so happy for him.”
It wasn’t over yet, but Na’s excitement was echoed throughout clubhouse. “It’s very cool, isn’t it?” said Tommy Fleetwood. “It’s an amazing story, not just in golf, in sport. In life!”
Said Charley Hoffman, as he cleared from his locker stacks of extra hats, gloves and balls, “Any tournament I play, if I don’t win I want him to win. He drives the game. I’m always rooting for him. To get to this point from where’s he’s been – physically, mentally, emotionally, I guess spiritually, that just shows you how good and how tough he is. He’s now spanned generations. He’s been through all those hard times and all those good times. And obviously he’s not done yet.”
In the 11 years since his previous major championship victory, on a broken leg at Torrey Pines, Woods had been to hell and back: tabloid infamy, divorce, swing changes, chip-yips, Hail Mary back surgeries, a DUI, rehab, leaked nude photos. By December 2017 he had cratered at 1,199th in the World Ranking. The long road back began with casual games around South Florida with fellow pros Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas. On Sunday afternoon Fowler leaned against the shoe-shine counter and recounted those days: “His back was against the wall, potentially not being able to compete again. It was cool to see him fall in love with the game again. He’s Tiger again but he’s a different Tiger.”
“He’s freed-up so much. His guard is down, he’s a lot more open, friendly. Before, in his prime, it was very much tunnel-vision. He went out and did his job and took care of business. He’s a lot more engaging now. Freer.”
Hoffman took it one step further: “He’s a better person now. He’s more humble, more personable. He’s learned from his mistake and come out stronger and better.”
Tiger is a different player, too. On some days his reconstituted spine robs him of the fluidity of his youth. The putts are no longer automatic, as was evident on Sunday’s front nine. But over the closing holes of this Masters he summoned vintage magic. Woods didn’t miss a shot coming down the stretch and Augusta National shook with every perfectly executed swing. After Woods nearly aced the 16th hole to extend his lead to two strokes, Marc Leishman couldn’t swallow a grin. “The best thing for the game would be for him to win a couple of majors and get closer to 18 and things will go really crazy,” he said. “They’re going crazy now. Can you imagine?”
Indeed, even as Woods played the final two holes it was impossible not to look ahead. Before blowing out the door Na said, “Oh yeah, Jack’s record isn’t safe anymore. This changes everything.”
Nicklaus’s career haul of 18 major championships has lorded over Woods since he was a history-making teen. It is so deeply ingrained in his mythology that his colleagues repeatedly returned to that magic number on Sunday. Martin Kaymer spent an hour sitting in front of a TV, wordlessly monitoring Woods’s finish. When the final putt dropped, and all the joy and relief poured out of Tiger in a series of primal screams, Kaymer said, “It’s super inspiring. You can’t even put into words the height he has climbed. The mental part especially. Now you can really see him winning more than 18. Two or three years ago, that was hard to even imagine. Now? The sky is the limit.”
Nicklaus his ownself agrees. He wasn’t on the grounds on Sunday but a couple of days earlier he had said, “I think this week will have a lot to tell with that. I still think that Tiger’s got 40 major championships to play where he’s still going to be physically able to do it. [At the Tuesday night champion’s dinner] I’ve never seen him so calm and so ready to play and so wanting to play. So I think Tiger’s got a good chance of breaking my record. Does anybody want their records to be broken? No, of course not. But if he’s healthy and does it, I want to be the first there to shake his hand and say, ‘Well done.’”
Yet deep within the Augusta National clubhouse there was one room where no one was worried about history. Why sweat the future when the present was so delicious? What had made Tiger’s near-misses at last summer’s British Open and PGA Championship so wrenching was that he spoke movingly about wanting to win for his kids, to show them who he used to be. Sam and Charlie made the trip to Augusta National for this Masters, and their joyous victory hugs behind the final green continued a long family tradition. When their dad was whisked away to the Butler Cabin to receive his latest green jacket, Charlie and Sam settled in a sitting room in the clubhouse along with their grandmother, Tida. On the TV, Tiger talked about being so overwhelmed in victory he couldn’t recall the specifics of his celebration. “I don’t know what I did,” he said. “I know I screamed.” This cracked up Charlie and Sam and the rest of the room.
Meanwhile, the attendants were packing up the lunch buffet in the locker room. They were all young and African-American, and would have been little kids when Woods’s 1997 Masters victory razed Augusta National’s dark history of discrimination while launching a cross-cultural icon. Among the players, there were only a couple of stragglers left. “This will be felt all the way in China,” said Haotong Li. “Tiger is as big as the world.”
Henrik Stenson had three black duffel bags of gear slung over his shoulders but he stopped to reflect on the weight of the moment. “This is very, very special,” he said. “It means quite a lot to all of us. It’s great for the game and all of us who are part of it. But what matters most is what it means to Tiger. He has returned to the highest peak of the sport.” What a view it must be. Then Stenson was gone, leaving the locker room empty but for its ghosts.
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