For Tiger Woods, 2019 Was the Year of Redemption

His stunning victory at the Masters wasn’t just the culmination of an epic comeback. It was a reminder of the hold that he has on all of us.
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The pastor had a pretty good plan until God intervened. David McKinley has led Warren Baptist Church for a decade, so he knew to cut back from three services to two on Masters Sunday; a lot of congregants are either out of town or working the tournament that week. But McKinley is a big golf fan. He had tickets for the final round. He planned to preach at 8 and 10 a.m., and then get to Augusta National by noon. Then he found out about the looming rainstorms.

It would not rain for 40 days and 40 nights, but it would rain that afternoon. And so, for the first time, Masters leaders would tee off on Sunday morning, with the final group at 9:20 a.m. There is no Bible passage that explicitly prohibits checking golf scores on your phone during hymns, so that's just what McKinley did. "Should I make confession?" he says with a laugh. "I think my congregation knows me well enough."

On his phone, McKinley saw what America saw: "The charge was on."

***

Augusta National occupies an unusual space in America's sports landscape, because it is both intimately familiar and totally foreign. Most golf fans can describe the back nine but know they will probably never see it in person. McKinley is one of the lucky ones. He regularly attends the Masters, and he has even played the course twice: "I parred hole number 1 the first time I played it. The rest of my score that day is none of your business."

Still, after a lifetime of loving golf and a decade in Augusta, McKinley did not expect to see Tiger Woods win another green jacket. Heck, after so many back and knee surgeries and days when it hurt to walk, even Tiger did not expect that.

And so, when McKinley finished his second service, he and his son, Joseph, Warren Baptist's director of creative worship, slipped through a back door to avoid small talk with the congregation. Then they hopped into their "getaway car"—a Honda Pilot in the choir parking lot.

David and Joseph found Woods strolling down the 10th hole. So many streams had joined together to form the moment: Woods's three birdies and two bogeys on the front nine, his 68 on Friday, his four previous Masters wins, his 10 other major championships, his chip-in on the 16th hole in 2005, his celebration with his father in 1997, that fire hydrant, the tabloid stories, the DUI and subsequent treatment for pain medication. Tiger Woods had been the most dominant golfer of modern times and a ghost of himself. Now he appeared to be both.

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The McKinleys watched Woods bogey 10 and miss the fairway with his tee shot on 11. But Tiger hit a beautiful recovery shot to make par, and as he approached the par-3 12th, this already felt unlike any other Masters in history. Woods trailed Francesco Molinari by two strokes. Nobody knew Woods would win. But everybody knew he might.

Although the Masters is the world's most popular golf tournament, you rarely see the packed crowds that are common at, say, Cameron Indoor Stadium. Ticket sales are limited, and the galleries tend to spread out, even on Sunday. But when Woods arrived at Amen Corner, it was packed like an Ariana Grande concert held during a Black Friday sale in the middle of Times Square.

McKinley was there, in 2016, when Jordan Spieth upchucked the Masters with two shots into Rae's Creek. This would be just as memorable. Molinari hit his tee shot on 12 into the water. So did the other member of the threesome, Tony Finau. They both made double bogey. Woods knows as well as anybody that you don't win the Masters at 12, but you can lose it there. He hit a 9-iron safely over the bunker, left of the flag, parring the hole for the fourth time that week.

You can win the Masters at the two par-fives on the back nine. Woods hit a perfect draw on 13 and made birdie to take the lead. On 15 he was on the green in two, 44 feet from the cup. Two-putt . . . birdie . . . hysteria. "Everybody knew," the pastor recalls. "You could feel the Tiger breath, man. It was on."

***

There was a time when David McKinley was not sure he wanted to cheer for Tiger Woods, whose infidelities and selfish behavior made him uneasy. But by the 2019 Masters, it was hard not to cheer for him. For one, Woods had been beaten up in so many ways that most people genuinely felt for him. And then there were the smiles, the autographs, the tips of the cap, the ending of old feuds and the increasingly candid answers. "I watched him ultimately recast who he was to the public," McKinley says. "He worked really hard to represent himself as a person who cared about people, rather than just a professional who won a prize."

Woods stood on the tee of the par-3 16th knowing a birdie would give him a two-stroke lead with two to play. The pin was left, as it always is. Woods's eight-iron landed on the ridge, right where he wanted to be. He leaned forward and said, to nobody and everybody, "Come on, baby, come on, come on. . . ."

The ball trickled past the cup and stopped four feet away. Woods made his birdie, and the roars seemed to come out of another life—when Woods was younger, sure, but also when we did not carry phones everywhere. Augusta National bans cellphones on the grounds; use one and you get kicked out. Many fans got the news of Tiger's birdie at 16 from watching the leader board near the 17th green. "There is something communal about everybody experiencing it at the same place on the same board," Joseph says.

The McKinleys cut up to the right side of the 18th hole and waited for the moment they never thought would come: Tiger Woods sinking the putt to win the 2019 Masters.

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Woods hugged his kids and America wiped away tears and the best golfers in the world stuck around to congratulate him. He has won as often as any golfer in history, yet this still felt like a miracle. David watched it as a golf fan, but also as a pastor. His mind never strays far from the church on the other end of Washington Road. "I'm always writing a sermon," he says.

The next Sunday was Easter. McKinley's sermon was called The God Who Plans Comebacks. He spent the first few minutes talking about Eldrick Tont Woods. "I have to confess," McKinley told the congregation, "standing here in front of you today: I was a doubter . . . Tiger Woods, who once ruled and reigned as golf's most fierce competitor, descended to depths so low in both his personal and private life . . . it really looked like the final word on the career of Tiger Woods was going to be tragedy and not triumph."

If that had happened we would still remember him with awe. But this was more fun, wasn't it? As McKinley said on Easter Sunday, "The whole world has been talking about it ever since. You know why? Because everybody loves a comeback. Right? Everybody loves a comeback!" Amen.