- Tiger Woods shot a three-under 69 on Sunday at Augusta to cap off a disappointing Masters week. The roars he inspired this week expressed more gratitude than awe, as he's caught between being a star and an elder statesman.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — Even more than the azaleas and the pimento cheese sandwiches, the roar of the crowd is what sets the Masters apart. Augusta National is nestled in a hollow, from the crest at the 18th green to the basin of Rae’s Creek, just in front of the 12th green. Cheers echo across the course, providing an organic update on the results faster than the diligent attendants operating the 10 manual scoreboards on the premises. Golfers on adjacent holes twist and do the math, trying to ascertain who has just moved up. IBM trained its artificial intelligence program to cut highlight videos of the tournament based in part on the intensity of the shouts.
Tiger Woods was on the 18th fairway on Sunday afternoon when he heard a roar. He turned to his left and cocked his head.
“Who do you think that was?” his caddie, Joe LaCava, asked. Woods guessed Rory McIlroy, who was then only a shot back of eventual champion Patrick Reed.
Woods was an approach and a three-putt bogey away from finishing his first tournament here since he placed 17th in 2015. This year he strung together a 73, a 75, a 72 and a final-round 69 to end the weekend at one over, tied for 32nd. At 42, he is caught between a role he has begun to embrace—elder statesman—and one he can’t quite relinquish—star.
Cheers did come in for Woods on Sunday, but they expressed more gratitude than awe. He drew crowds completely out of proportion with his score. He received an ovation at Amen Corner for doing nothing more than walking up to the tee at 12.
So much seemed almost familiar, just askew by a few ticks of the clock. There was Woods dressed in his usual Sunday red polo, but in a nod to variable weather he added a black vest. There he was, stalking purposefully up the fairway on 18, pondering his chance for birdie. Only minutes before, on 14, he had engaged in the kind of idle chitchat with playing partner Rafael Cabrera-Bello that you’d never see when Tiger is in contention.
Traditionally on Masters Sundays, Woods’s mother, Kultida Woods, walks the 18 holes arm-in-arm with Nike founder Phil Knight. Knight, 80, did not make the trip to Georgia this year. Kultida is 74 and her son was out of contention. As she has all week, she walked the first nine, then went inside at the turn.
Three of Woods’s greatest rivals from his prime were all present. But Sergio Garcia, 38, was there only to hand off the green jacket to this year’s champion Patrick Reed. Garcia made a 13 on Thursday en route to missing the cut with a two-day score of 15 over par. David Duval, 46, analyzed the field from a set for Golf Channel. Phil Mickelson, 47, teed off in the third group—a day after whiffing from the bushes on the first hole—and finished at two over, though he did manage a 67 on Sunday.
Every inch of this course carries memories for Woods. At the 16th hole in 2005, he famously chipped in from long and left of the green, a shot that paused and flashed the Nike swoosh before dropping into the hole. He would go on to beat Chris DiMarco in a playoff to win that year. At the 18th hole in ’01, he holed a 15-footer to complete the Tiger Slam. In 1997 and 2002, he simply blew away the field.
Sunday’s best moment was probably his eagle on 15, when he made a 29-foot putt on a day when his flatstick had largely deserted him. “Nice putt,” LaCava told him. Woods nodded coolly at the time, but later admitted he had enjoyed the moment. “I finally made a putt,” he said, smiling. He will receive a crystal goblet for the eagle, one of a litany of unique Augusta traditions. “That will be going on the mantle at home,” he said.
This week provided plenty of reasons for optimism. Less than a year after surgery to fuse a spine that had left him in pain for close to a decade, Woods averaged 293.7 yards per drive, the 14th—longest in the tournament. Until Sunday, he had felt he was putting well. He had given himself ample opportunities to build momentum with birdies; he just failed to capitalize, time and time again.
Case in point: the finishing hole on Sunday. He followed a strong drive on 18 with a towering seven-iron that missed its mark by about a foot and finished 40 feet past the pin. He would take three to get in from there, finishing with a bogey that punctuated a fine round with a sour note.
Every error is magnified at Augusta, but every error is always magnified for Woods. The rules have always been different for him. Mickelson’s swing and miss is already nearly forgotten; a mistake like that for Woods would have been its own news cycle. Trolls would have invoked Willie Mays’s seasons with the Mets. Six months ago Woods thought he might never play golf again. Today he shot three under at the Masters and answered half a dozen questions about how dismayed he must be with his performance.
The truth is he wasn’t, really. Yes, this result would have been a disappointment in his prime. But he is no longer in his prime. For the last three Masters weeks, he’d made the trip to Augusta just to make an appearance at the Champions’ Dinner on Tuesday, then spend Thursday-Sunday glued to his TV. This is a man who picked up his first club before many children ride in a forward-facing car seat. He loves to win, but he also loves to play. His expectations for himself have changed as he has begun to count the minutes remaining in the only career he has ever wanted or known.
“For a couple of years I’ve been coming here just to eat,” Woods said after his Masters was over. “I missed it. I really did.”
He now contends with a generation of golfers he helped create, a troupe of millennials who might be playing soccer or basketball had they not been held rapt by that chip, that Slam, that dominance. Twenty-nine-year-old Rickie Fowler, who finished second, has tried to recreate that chip on 16. (“I didn’t make it,” he said.) Third-place finisher Jordan Spieth, 24, has replayed the video of that moment countless times. Jason Day, 30, remembers waking up at 4 or 5 a.m. to watch Woods’s 15-shot victory at the 1997 Masters. Justin Thomas, 24, still watches Woods’ highlights online. Hideki Matsuyama, 25, has called Woods his hero. McIlroy, 28, who tied for fifth, filmed a Nike commercial two years ago tracking a childhood obsession with golf that blossomed alongside Woods’s career. (Woods’s own children, 10-year-old daughter Sam and 9-year-old son Charlie, came along too late to remember their dad’s heyday; they call him “the YouTube golfer.”) These days the vibe is more veneration than intimidation. The next generation of golfers fights butterflies when they play alongside him, then peppers him with questions once on those butterflies subside.
One of Tigers’ most ardent fans slipped on the green jacket on Sunday. Reed, 27, has worn red on Sundays since juniors, an homage, he says, to “the best player who ever lived.” Today their mutual sponsor Nike mandated that its other golfers wear pink, and Reed obliged.
Reed won the Masters. But still, even in this condition, even after all this time, even as he wrestles with his place in the game, there is only one Tiger.