AUGUSTA, Ga. — Right at the top of the list of all-time golf clichés—above “Drive for show, putt for dough” and “Trees are 90% air”—sits the eternal maxim: The Masters doesn’t really start until the second nine on Sunday afternoon.
This year, everything was different. The Masters didn’t really start until the back nine on Sunday morning.
The tee time for the final group was moved up to 9:20 a.m. in an effort to complete the tournament before the arrival of a strong line of thunderstorms. In a normal year, the leaders of the Masters are just rolling out of bed at that hour.
The day had begun with Francesco Molinari holding a two-shot lead at -13, playing in the final threesome with Tiger Woods and Tony Finau, both two shots behind. Brooks Koepka lurked one shot further back at -10, while Webb Simpson and Ian Poulter stood four back at nine-under-par. The leaderboard was loaded entering the day, with big names going low at what felt like an unprecedented clip on Saturday.
But as the wind began to build from the approaching storm, none of the leaders were able to create much separation on the first nine. Molinari continued his metronomic consistency, shooting even par, while Woods and Koepka were one–under, and Finau was even. That left Molinari one shot up on Woods and two up on Koepka and Finau. Poulter lurked a further shot back at -10.
At 11:50 a.m., the Masters was truly about to start. Who would impose their will on the tournament?
Given his stunning record in majors over the past two years, it was shocking that Koepka was the first to flinch. His 9-iron came up well short of No. 12 and ended up in Rae’s Creek. His playing competitor Poulter pulled an 8-iron and suffered the same fate. The pair both ended up with a double bogey 5. Poulter faded from the leaderboard. Koepka would refuse to do so.
After watching the struggles of the group ahead, Molinari stepped up to hit his shot at No. 12. The crowd in the grandstand will always give you a sense of how good a tee shot is at that famous par-3, and they were instantly murmuring with concern. Molinari’s shot landed on the front bank and rolled back into the water.
Woods was next to play, and hit a smart, conservative shot to the center of the green—clubbing up after watching Koepka and Poulter land in the water. Stunningly, Finau stepped onto the tee next…and dunked his 8-iron.
Four of the final five players in the Masters had hit it in the creek.
Molinari couldn’t get up-and-down for bogey, and his double bogey dropped him to –11. Finau also dropped two shots, going to -8. Tiger left his lag putt short, but was able to convert a testy five-footer for par. The putt would end up being the turning point of the championship.
While the former frontrunners were busy drowning golf balls, Xander Schauffele birdied No. 13 to get to –11. That left Schauffele, Molinari and Woods tied at 11-under, with Jason Day, Bubba Watson, Jon Rahm, and Patrick Cantlay one shot back at -10.
Cantlay had started the tournament with back-to-back 73s and made the cut by a single stroke. But a Saturday 64 got him within seven strokes Saturday night, and he continued his hot play on Sunday. At 12:53 p.m, when he rolled in an eagle putt on No. 15, Cantlay, improbably and suddenly, was the leader of the Masters at –12.
Koepka somehow stabilized himself after his double bogey at No. 12 with a stunning eagle at No. 13 to join Schauffele, Molinari and Woods at -11. But moments later, at 12:57 pm, Schauffele rolled in a birdie putt on No. 14 to get to –12 and tie Cantlay.
Both Molinari and Woods had routine two-putt birdies on the 13th hole, taking them both to –12, tied with Schauffele. Meanwhile, Cantlay hit a poor tee shot on the par-3 16th, and after three putts, he fell out of the tie for the lead. He would bogey No. 17 as well, ending his stirring run.
The way to win the Masters is to take advantage of the two par 5s on the second nine: Nos. 13 and 15. Schauffele had gotten his birdie on 13, but a poor drive into the trees on the right of 15 eliminated his chance to go for the green, and after punching out, he could do no better than par.
That left Woods and Molinari on the tee at 15—in position to swing the tournament. Woods smoked a beautiful drive down the right side, strutting after it to admire his work. Molinari followed off the tee and hit his drive wide right just as Schauffele had, into the pine straw.
One group ahead, Koepka had hit his second shot at No. 15 to the back of the green, and two-putted. That took him to –12. And seemingly out of nowhere, Dustin Johnson birdied 17—his fourth in five holes—to also reach –12.
It was 1:30 p.m.—90 minutes before the leaders would usually tee off—and five players were tied for the lead at the Masters. Not your usual Sunday at Augusta.
It was time for Woods’ second shot on 15, from 227 yards. He cut his shot into the middle of the green. Molinari was forced to lay up but put himself in bad position in the rough on the left side, and fatted his third shot off a pine branch and into the water short of the hole. His pitch from the drop zone nearly rolled back into the water again. Double bogey. Molinari, who had played such clean golf for 63 holes (and went 49 holes without a bogey), had killed his chances with two doubles on the final nine.
Woods cozied his eagle putt near the hole and converted his tap-in birdie. At 1:40 p.m, Tiger Woods was in the solo lead of the Masters at –13 with three holes to play. The stage was set.
In 1986, Jack Nicklaus hit one of the most famous shots in the history of the Masters at the 16th hole, a pure 5-iron. As the ball was in the air, his son Gary, who was caddying for Nicklaus said, “Be right,” and Nicklaus, who was bending down to pick up his tee said, “It is.” The ball ended up three feet from the pin. Nicklaus went on to win that Masters at age 46, in one of the most improbable Masters wins ever.
In 2019, Woods hit one of the most famous shots in the history of the 16th hole, a pure 8-iron. The high draw caught the slope and the ball trundled left, down toward the traditional Sunday hole location. “Come on baby,” said Woods on the tee. “Come on. Come on!” It did, easing to a stop three feet below the hole. His putt was dead center.
At 1:52, Tiger Woods was at –14, and led the Masters by two shots.
Only one person stood in Tiger’s way. Koepka was two back with two to play. But his 13-foot birdie putt on 17 stayed just above the hole. When Koepka wasn’t able to birdie 18, and Woods safely parred 17, the route to a fifth green jacket for Woods was clear. A bogey on the par-4 final hole would win.
Woods hit a solid three-wood to the right edge of the fairway. But his second shot came up short, leaving a nervy pitch. He flew it past the hole and tried to use the slope of the green to carry it toward the pin—a strategy that with the Augusta greens running at their normal lightning speed would have been perfect. But the soft greens kept the pitch well above the hole.
Tiger’s first putt looked like it might drop for a stylish finish, but burned the right of the hole, leaving a two-foot putt to win. After Molinari and Finau finished their rounds, Woods calmly stroked it in. At 2:28 p.m, Tiger Woods was, at last, the Masters champion for the fifth time.
“I was just trying to plod my way around the golf course,” said Woods after the round. “I was as patient as I’ve been in a number of years. I kept control of my emotions, my shots, and my shot placement.”
Fourteen years after his last Masters’ win, Woods pulled off the seemingly impossible. Alone among the contenders, he avoided any big mistakes on the second nine holes on Sunday. Twenty-two years ago, he had overpowered his opponents and the golf course to win his first Masters. Today, he had out-thought them to win his fifth.