AUGUSTA, Ga. – They saw it, and felt it, and heard it, just like the rest of us, the stir that was spreading around Augusta National, the tension tight, the leaderboard stacked, the roars echoing hole after hole as Tiger Woods authored the most ridiculous triumph of his gilded golfing career.
Brooks Koepka was a group ahead, sneaking glances at the scoreboard, watching those arms flip a red 12 to a red 13 for Woods’ score, then a red 13 to a red 14. He could feel his chances slipping away. Still …
“The coolest back nine of a major championship I’ve ever been a part of,” said the man who’s won three of the last seven.
Xander Schauffele was playing two groups ahead, busy capping off the best week of golf he’s ever played, rolling in three birdies on the back nine to finish in a tie for second. He strolled off the 18th green giddy. “We just proved to ourselves we can win on this property,” he told his caddie. Fifteen minutes later he walked into a news conference room that was darn-near empty. Still …
“I know why this room’s barely full,” Schauffele smiled. “I know where everyone’s at.”
Tiger Woods (right) greets Tony Finau after putting on the 18th green during the final round of The Masters on Sunday. (Photo: Rob Schumacher, USA TODAY Sports)
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Tony Finau, 22 years to the week he watched his first golf tournament on TV, as a lanky 7-year-old in Salt Lake City, slogged his way to a sloppy 72 on Sunday, fading from second to a tie for fifth. Still, he stood in front of the Augusta National clubhouse Sunday afternoon, feeling the need to congratulate the man who inspired him to take up the game.
“Something you can’t pay for,” Finau would say of his front-row seat for history.
Seventeen months ago Tiger Woods was ranked 1,999th in the world, his reputation stained, his future foggy, his back pain persistent.
On Sunday he won the 83rd Masters, stamping the signature win of his improbable comeback. Surgery after surgery, the scandals, the doubts, even the chipping yips, years away from competitive play and a decade-plus since his last major championship – he somehow climbed out of it all. He did what few thought he ever would again, but what he always believed he would.
And he left everyone in awe, the world’s best golfers included.
“I’m just ecstatic for golf, I’m ecstatic for him,” 2007 Masters champ Zach Johnson said. “It’s hard to put into words right now. We’re essentially 10 minutes after the fact, so hear me out when I say I don’t know what a better comeback in sports is. I’m sure there are probably ones you can argue, but in my lifetime, I don’t think I’ve seen a comeback like this.”
“There is absolutely zero bad or negative things that come from this,” added Rickie Fowler, fresh off his second consecutive top-10 Masters finish. “And if you happen to think (there is), find something else to do.”
Dustin Johnson, the world No. 2, winner of 20 PGA tournaments and consistently one of the biggest attractions in golf, somehow slid into borderline obscurity Sunday afternoon. He finished second in the Masters, and you never would’ve known it. All eyes were elsewhere.
“You could hear the roars,” Johnson told CBS after his round, “and you can definitely tell the difference between a roar for me and a roar for Tiger.”
In many ways Sunday, Tiger Woods beat back the generation of golfing prodigies he helped create, mold and inspire.
Those prodigies played chase Sunday afternoon. Francesco Molinari, who first arrived at Augusta National as a caddie, watching Woods work in his prime. Johnson. Finau. Schauffele. And maybe most of all, Koepka, steeled by a rock steady temperament that serves him well when the stakes climb and the pressure mounts. He held off Woods at the PGA Championship at Bellerive last August. This time, Woods was a shot better.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Koepka said. “You know, you want to play against the best to ever play. You want to go toe-to-toe with him, and you know, I can leave saying I gave it my all.”
Then Koepka stopped, and weighed all he’d witnessed in the last few hours, and started shaking his head.
“He’s just good, man. I think 18 is a whole lot closer than people think.”
Eighteen, of course, is that magical number – Jack Nicklaus’ record for the most major championships in history – a goal that felt unattainable in recent years. Tiger was stuck on 14. Perhaps forever. “I’m done,” Woods told his fellow golfers at the 2017 Champions Dinner at Augusta.
Three years later, he’ll be picking out the menu as the defending champ.
Like Koepka, Schauffele was asked to put into words what he’d just seen. A tension-thick Sunday at Augusta, Woods in red, chasing birdies and history.
“Like a dream, honestly,” Schauffele called it. “It’s what I watched as a kid.”
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