AUGUSTA, Ga. — It happened here. It had to be here.
The completion of golf’s most unlikely comeback wasn’t going to happen at Carnoustie, a browned-out course on the distant shores of Scotland. It wasn’t going to happen at Bellerive, amid the oppressive heat of late summer in the midwest.
Nope. There is only one venue fit for the belief-defying, faith-inspiring spectacle that played out on Sunday: Augusta National Golf Club.
It’s where, 22 years ago, he blew away his competition to show the entire world what the next global sporting icon looked like. It’s where, 18 years ago, he won his fourth straight major at the absolute height of his powers.
It’s where, on Sunday, he reminded us to never, ever, ever doubt him again.
Pinch yourself. Do it again. Now, one more time. It’s real. Tiger Woods—43-year-old Tiger Woods, with a fused back and a rebuilt golf swing and a closet overflowing with skeletons—is the Masters champion. His closing two-under 70 and –13 total was good for a one-shot victory over Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele and Brooks Koepka.
“It’s just unreal,” Woods said, conveying so much in three simple words.
Yes, this is Woods’ fifth victory at Augusta and his 15th major championship, but this was unprecedented in so many ways. Chief among them: this was the first time Woods won a major without holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead. A comeback to complete a comeback.
And what a comeback it was. Off the course, yes. But also on it.
The best way to describe this frenetic day at Augusta National is to revisit the leaderboard at around 1:30 p.m.—six hours earlier than when this scenario usually plays out, as tee times were moved up to avoid a storm that didn’t dare show its face until Tiger finished the damn thing—when seven players were within a stroke of the lead.
There was Francesco Molinari, the machine-like British Open champion who did not show anything resembling weakness until finding the water on No. 12. There was Schauffele, the star-in-waiting who was 3 years old when Tiger first won here. There was Koepka, the unflappable beast who feasts on major championships with Darwinian voracity. And there was Johnson, and Patrick Cantlay, and Jason Day.
And there was Tiger, exuding a sense of serenity that contrasted with the threatening Georgia skies.
“I just felt so prepared coming into this event," Woods said. "This year, my finish didn’t really reflect it, but I was starting to shape the golf ball the way that I know I can. Which I needed this week.”
Buoyed by that deep confidence, he did not press after bogeying No. 5 for the fourth day in a row. He did not panic after missing three putts of 10 feet or less on the front nine. He did not worry as stars of yesterday, of today, and tomorrow made birdie after birdie after eagle after birdie. He knew he had more holes left than anybody else, more chances to put his unparalleled knowledge of this place to use.
“I just said, keep plodding along, and then next thing you know, I see Brooksy make a mistake at 12.”
Brooksy wasn’t the only one.
After watching Koepka, Ian Poulter and Molinari rinse their tee shots at 12, Woods gave his 9 iron a little extra and aimed safely left. Two-putt par. He then carved a perfect draw around the corner at 13, leaving just 161 yards into the par 5. Two-putt birdie. Then he played to the fat part of the par-5 15th green with his second. Another two-putt birdie. At that point, this pipe dream morphed into a more-likely-than-not scenario. The tournament was his to take as he stepped to the 16th tee.
Ah, yes, No. 16. It’s where, 14 years ago, Woods—wearing the same blood-red “mock turtleneck” shirt as he did Sunday—chipped in from an impossible position en route to green jacket No. 4. He made birdie there again Sunday, employing that same slope he did 5,117 days ago to funnel his 8-iron into tap-in range. In hindsight, that’s the shot that secured green jacket No. 5.
When he holed the final putt, a two-footer for bogey on 18, Woods pumped both arms aggressively into the air. It’s impossible to overstate how far he’s come from his lowest point, which he’s described over and over: lying in bed, unable to stand and wondering if he’d ever be able to live pain-free, let alone play the game that made Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods.
“[My] kids are staring to understand how much this game means to me, and some of the things I’ve done in the game. Prior to the comeback, they only knew that golf caused me a lot of pain.”
Adrenaline likely subdued any pain Tiger had on No. 18. Woods walked off the green as patrons took off their hats and waved them in earnest appreciation. Applause and shouts simply didn’t suffice. This man, this moment, deserved more. He was ecstatic as he hugged his children, who flew Sunday morning per dad’s request. He had a feeling about today. He answered umpteen questions about his round, his comeback, his “impact,” with a smile on his face.
But here’s what he wouldn’t do: cry. No matter how hard media members tried, Woods wouldn’t budge. This was no ceremonial victory, no swan song. The comeback chapter of his life is now complete—truly complete, with no disrespect meant toward the Tour Championship—freeing him up to chase Jack’s record of 18 majors, which just four days ago looked so very safe.
Now you can say it. You can scream it from the rooftops. Tiger Woods is back. And if the back surgeries didn’t finish him, if the off-the-course issues didn't finish him, and if the decade-long drought didn’t finish him…what makes you think he’ll stop now?