AUGUSTA, Ga. — The comment provoked thought and, quickly enough, laughter. “Tiger, welcome back,” the Masters press chairman, Craig Heatley, said to the man who’d just won the tournament — surprisingly, perhaps.
“Or should I say more appropriately, welcome home?”
Yes, home to the place where he burst upon golf, a phenom, 22 years ago, with that game-changing, thunderous, record-setting Masters victory of 1997.
We should have known. Games may be lost. Tournaments may be lost. But greatness is forever. That Tiger Woods went through embarrassment with the scandal, and then because of a back injury went through pain that made him believe he could no longer play, didn’t mean he still wasn’t great.
Or could win a major championship, although when people would ask me, as someone who had watched Tiger since his days at Stanford and had covered every one of his major victories, if he could win another I told them, “No.”
Not at 43, not with all the brilliant young golfers now in the mix, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and the rest.
But Tiger made fools of us all, made also-rans of the rest of the entrants in the season’s first major, the Masters.
The clues were there; a brief lead in last summer’s British Open; a move to the top in last summer’s PGA Championship; victory in the season-ending Tour Championship.
What we didn’t realize, or more accurately what we forgot, was that Tiger Woods knew how to play Augusta National; knew how to win the Masters, which he had done four times before this one, when, with a 2-under-par 70 he took the lead on the back nine — where the Masters always is decided the last day — and with a 13-under 275 finished a shot ahead of Dustin Johnson.
It was 1996, and Tiger, at Pumpkin Ridge near Portland, was trying to win his third straight U.S. Amateur. After 18 holes of the 36-hole final, Woods trailed Steve Scott, and I went on KNBR radio in San Francisco and said Woods would lose. He didn’t. Willie McCovey, the late Hall of Fame baseball star, chastised me for a lack of faith.
McCovey believed certain athletes either have it — he had it — or they don’t.
Woods had it. Still has it. The way Joe Montana had it. The way Jack Nicklaus, who won the Masters at age 46, had it. Greatness is forever.
In the post-match debriefing, Woods spoke of winning in front of his children Sam, 11, and Charlie, 10; of the “serious doubts” he had a couple of years ago when he could barely walk; about how, because of his experience, he “just kept plodding along” as the round unfolded — Tiger taking the lead when Francesco Molinari hit his tee ball into Rae’s Creek on the par-3 12th.
Most fascinating perhaps was a reference to his hands, which Woods said enable him to control shots left or right, high or low. Golf, along with baseball, basketball, tennis and various others, is a sport of hand-eye coordination. That’s why Steph Curry, who can throw in those 30-footers, can also knock in those six-footers on the greens.
But there’s also the mental side. “The win at East Lake,” said Tiger, naming the course where the Tour Championship is held, “was a confidence booster for me because I came close last year a couple of times and didn’t do it.
“East Lake confirmed I could still win out here.”
Augusta National confirmed he still could win a major, his 15 victories ranking him second to Nicklaus’ 18.
This is the same Woods, able to do what is needed on the course, but this also is a different Woods, more congenial, seemingly more appreciative. You know that line; you don’t know what you had until you’ve lost it. His victory celebration seemed inclusive, as if for the first time in his glorious career he was inviting the gallery that had been chanting “Tiger, Tiger” to share his elation.
“Just to come back here and play as well as I did,” he said, “all the little things, this has meant so much to me and my family, this tournament, and to have everyone here. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Heatley, the press chairman, said, “This is clearly one of those monumental days in all of sport when people all around the world will say, ‘Where were you when Tiger won his fifth green jacket in 2019?’”
“Well,” interjected Woods, “I know where I was.”