Book Excerpt: Five Years Ago, Tiger Woods Ruled the Masters Again

On his long list of triumphs, Woods's epic comeback at the 2019 Masters stands as one of the greatest and memories of the final round are still stirring.
Kohjiro Kinno/Sports Illustrated

From DRIVE: The Lasting Legacy of Tiger Woods by Bob Harig. Copyright 2024 by the author and reprinted by permission from St. Martin’s Press.

THE TRUTH is that Tiger Woods had not gone into the Masters with a realistic chance to win since 2013, the year of his infamous drop on the 15th hole that led to a two-stroke penalty and eventually a tie for fourth, four strokes behind Adam Scott.

He missed the tournament for the first time in 2014 due to his first microdiscectomy, took nine weeks off prior to the 2015 tournament due to back and chipping woes, didn’t play in 2016 and 2017 and was making just his sixth official start of 2018 after spinal fusion surgery when he played that year’s Masters.

But his Tour Championship victory in September of 2018 provided a big boost of confidence. The way he battled against some of the game’s best, including Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy, is often overlooked in the telling of that story. None of them would have feared Woods at that point, and yet he outperformed them.

Book cover for "Drive: The Lasting Legacy of Tiger Woods"
"Drive: The Lasting Legacy of Tiger Woods" / Courtesy St. Martin's Press

Serious preparation for the 2019 Masters didn’t begin until January, and Woods had a nice run of tournaments at the Farmers Insurance Open (tied for 20), Genesis Invitational (T15), WGC-Mexico Championship (T10), Players Championship (T30) and WGC Match Play (T5). No missed cuts, a good mixture of courses and competition, and some head-to-head golf at the Match Play to really get focused. One of those Match Play victories was over McIlroy.

The downside is that in those five tournaments, Woods never finished closer than eight shots to the winner in the four stroke-play events, and was never a back-nine contender in the final round.

“Personally, I wasn’t quite sure he had enough tournament rounds,” says Joe LaCava, his then caddie. “We had a pretty light schedule going in. Having said that, I know when he’s not feeling well. I think he knew he needed to save up some energy and it was more important for him to be rested and get his back worked on versus playing tournament golf.”

Woods had adopted a less-is-more approach to practice prior to tournaments, especially the majors, where a pro-am round was not required. He preferred to play nine holes, seeking the proper balance between getting ready and doing too much. There was always concern he was not see-ing enough of the course, and it heightened when Woods did not practice on Tuesday. But there were also concerns about taxing his body.

“The best move I made the entire week was to not go out and play on that Tuesday,” Woods said. “The rain had come in and the greens had slowed up. They didn’t quite cut them. The golf course was playing slower. I knew they would speed it up come Thursday.”

Tiger Woods hits shot at 2019 Masters in front of patrons.
The Augusta National crowd gravitated to Tiger. / Kohjiro Kinno/Sports Illustrated

So it was back to work on Wednesday, and Woods played a practice round with Fred Couples, the 1992 Masters champion, and Justin Thomas, his South Florida friend who would get close to Woods and his son, Charlie. What occurred on the 9th green came in handy during the tournament, when Woods faced a dicey two-putt from 50 feet, a downhill effort that he lagged to within inches to save par.

“It was huge,” LaCava says. “He hits it way back to that top shelf. Back left, the third tier. The pin is front left. And the funny thing is when we finished up on Wednesday with J.T. and Fred, Tiger dropped a ball and they had a little closest-to contest. He dropped the ball a foot from where he hit it on Sunday. And the pin was a foot from where it was on Sunday.

“Now listen, I don’t think that’s ever an easy two-putt. But it’s certainly way easier on Wednesday with nothing on the line than Sunday. But I think it helped a little bit. He had a good look at it Wednesday.”

FOR JUST the ninth time in 22 Masters starts, Woods broke par on the opening day at Augusta National. It was the first time in five years he was under par following the first round of a major championship. His 2-under-par 70 saw him on the leaderboard as well, four strokes back of Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau.

“I felt like I played well and I did all the things I needed to do today to post a good number,” Woods said. “I drove it well, hit some good iron shots, speed was good on the greens. And it was tricky, the winds as of right now—it puffs up, it goes down, it switches directions and it’s typical of this golf course; it just kind of swirls out there and it’s hard to get a bead on exactly what it’s doing at all times.”

Woods made four birdies and two bogeys, the last coming at the par-4 17th when he found the trees off the tee and could not get up and down from the left front of the green.

That denied him a chance at just his second opening round in the 60s at Augusta. The only time he’d been under 70 in the first round to that point was in 2010, when he shot 68. And yet, three of his four Masters victories—1997, 2001 and 2002—came after opening the tournament with a 70.

Little did Woods know that Friday’s biggest obstacle would arrive in the form of a human missile. The sliding, perhaps overzealous security guard meant well, but for a few fleeting, scary moments during the second round, the scene appeared ominous for Woods, who was clipped in the right knee and was left hobbling to the 14th green.

On this wild day, Woods would overcome not just theinjury scare, but also a balky putter—at least on the short ones—and a weather delay to shoot 4-under-par 68. He was a shot behind an all-star cast that included Koepka, Scott, Francesco Molinari, Jason Day and Louis Oosthuizen. All were major championship winners.

Francesco Molinari is pictured at the 2019 Masters.
Francesco Molinari held the 54-hole lead. / Kohjiro Kinno/Sports Illustrated

“I was just very patient today, felt very good to be out there doing what I was doing,” Woods said. “This is now three straight majors that I’ve been in the mix, and so it’s good stuff.”

Woods finished tied for sixth at the Open, where Molinari won, and was second at the PGA Championship, where Koepka won his third major. And now 36 holes into his 22nd Masters appearance, Woods had given himself another opportunity; his 36-hole score was the fourth best of his Masters career.

And for the first time in seven years—since the 2012 PGA Championship—he opened a major with consecutive rounds under par, with a familiar nemesis in his path.

Molinari, European Ryder Cup hero and suddenly the world’s most steely golfer, was there again, and to be alongside Woods and Tony Finau in a rare Sunday three-ball.

Molinari shot 66 on Saturday and did not make a bogey over his last two rounds, with just one for the tournament. Since the previous year’s Masters, Molinari, then 36, had amassed four worldwide victories, including the Open, the European Tour’s BMW Championship and the Arnold Palmer Invitational a month earlier.

All 14 of Woods’s major victories had come with at least a share of the 54-hole lead, but that stat discounted the fact that several times he trailed in a final round before rallying.

After a Saturday 67, Woods would need to do that on a final day that was expected to be impacted by the weather.

“It will be interesting to see if that wind comes up like it’s forecast; 15, 20 miles an hour around this golf course is going to be testy,” Woods said.

Molinari led at 203, with Woods and Finau tied at 205. Koepka, after a 69, was three shots back of Molinari, with Webb Simpson and Ian Poulter four behind.

Woods was closer to the lead than he had been in any major going into the final round since the 2013 Open at Muirfield, where he was also two back but finished sixth.

He noted that the early start would be unusual, and while Woods is a notoriously poor sleeper, he needed extra time each day due to his back issues to prepare for a round of golf.

It was a challenge he relished.

“The day I don’t feel pressure is the day I quit,” he said. “I always thought that if you care about something, obviously you’re going to feel pressure. And I’ve always felt it, from the first time I remember ever playing a golf tournament to now. That hasn’t changed.”

THE FINAL round was moved up due to that dire weather forecast, which showed rain and thunderstorms hitting the area in midafternoon. So the Masters took the unusual step of putting players out in threesomes, starting on both tees, hoping to end the tournament prior to the projected storms, meaning Woods also needed to awaken earlier and go through the process of getting ready to play golf, which for him was elaborate.

That meant his lengthy routine of stretching, physical therapy and engagement. This likely took several hours, and was necessary for Woods, allowing him to not only loosen up his various body parts but to try to prevent injury.

As the early holes played out, Woods struggled to stay close to Molinari, who began the round with a two-shot advantage and kept scrambling to keep his lead. Woods finally got within a shot when he knocked his approach close at the par-4 7th.

Because of the 9:20 a.m. tee time (Woods would have teed off shortly after 2 p.m. on a normal Masters Sunday), he had not seen his kids, Sam and Charlie, before heading to the first tee. They had made plans to arrive Sunday morning. And they almost didn’t come at all. Had Sam’s soccer team won its tournament game a day earlier in Florida, there would have been no trip to Augusta. Instead, they had their first opportunity to see their dad in his Sunday red at the Masters—having previously been to Augusta National only one time prior, for the 2015 Par 3 Contest.

But when Woods struck his tee shot off Augusta’s No. 1 hole, he was unsure if they had arrived.

“I didn’t know until I got to 7 and I had that little tap-in for birdie, and I see Charlie is jumping up and down,” says Woods. “And I thought, ‘Good, they made it; they made it.’ And I didn’t see them the rest of the day until 18.”

The turning point turned out to be the 12th hole, where Tiger’s competitors could not keep their golf balls out of Rae’s Creek. Four players, including Molinari, found the water there, dooming their chances.“

You could feel how much everybody wanted Tiger to win,” says Simpson, who played in the group preceding Woods. “When I made the birdie on 13, there were like eight claps. Everybody else was cheering for Tiger. And honestly, that was the first time at Augusta where I heard anyone cheer for a water ball. They cheered for Molinari’s and Finau’s water balls, because it meant Tiger had a better chance.

“When I was on 13 waiting to hit, I turned around to see Tiger on the [12th] green. That’s when I think as a player, you remove yourself for a second, and you take in the moment. And I did that. I grew up watching him. In ’97, I was there for a practice round. And then it’s his Sunday red on the 12th green of Augusta, maybe the most famous picture in golf. It was cool. I told myself, ‘You’re competing against Tiger Woods in the Masters. That is a childhood dream.’ So I took that in.”

Woods was tied for the first time after the 12th hole but didn’t take the lead until his birdie at the par-5 15th, where Molinari ran into trouble. A wayward drive to the right, a poor punch-out that went through the fairway on the left—and then a clipped tree branch as he attempted to hit his third shot to the green. Ball in the water, double bogey, game over.

Molinari’s miscues meant more gasps, but Woods had only separated by a shot. There were still three holes to play, and the par-3 16th, the site of so much drama over the years, delivered again. Woods’s iron tee shot flew toward the right side of the green, landed on a slope, kicked left, and gained momentum as it tracked toward the hole.

Tiger Woods is on the 16th green at the 2019 Masters.
Tiger Woods birdied the 16th on Sunday, putting him up two with two to play. / Kohjiro Kinno/Sports Illustrated

One of the more iconic photos that emerged from that tee shot is Woods staring the ball down while chewing gum—and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps behind the gallery rope intently watching the flight of the ball.

It stopped just a few feet away, setting up a three-foot birdie putt. Woods asked LaCava for a read, to which Joe replied: “Just knock it in!” Woods did, meaning a two-shot advantage with two holes to play.

“We’re on the 17th tee, Tiger hits and lands it on the hill and it starts trickling,” Simpson says. “We have a perfect view. Crowd is so excited. They want it to go in. It looks like it’s going in. And [Simpson’s caddie] Paul [Tesori] turns around and looks at me and says, ‘What if this went in?’ It was one of those moments you’ll never forget. The crowd is so loud they’re oblivious to everyone on the tee."

Tesori remembered just how loud it was at that time. “Obviously when the ball landed and started to trickle, it just got louder and louder,” he says. “I had goose bumps.”

Woods hadn’t been in this position at Augusta in 14 years.Way back in 2005, he led by two shots with two holes to play, then inexplicably bogeyed both the 17th and 18th holes, nearly losing to Chris DiMarco before taking a playoff.

So there was still work to be done.

“The tee shot he hit on 17 I think was everything for me,” says Rose, who watched the final round from home after missing the cut. “That’s just a tee shot that you can’t hide from. It’s straight-away. It’s like you either hit it straight or you’re in the trees. With a two-shot lead, 17 was the only hole that could have really made it difficult for him.”

Woods laced his tee shot into the fairway and knocked his approach to 10 feet, narrowly missing a birdie putt that would have all but ended any drama. He went to the 18th tee still leading by two strokes. Up ahead, both Dustin Johnson and Koepka had missed birdie putts that might have made things far more difficult.

A nervy tee shot ensued, with Woods flaring one out to the right, leaving him a long way from the green. But he needed only a bogey, so Woods played a shot short of the green, wedged on and then had two-putts for a most satisfying and remarkable win.

After Woods holed the winning putt, he raised his arms in triumph and eventually headed off the green through a chute to the scoring area, where cheering and chanting rang in his ears as he greeted his family, including Charlie, wearing a backward baseball cap. It brought back all kinds of memories of 1997, when Woods walked into the arms of his father, Earl, following his first Masters win.

“I had never, ever in all my years of going there and all my years of watching the Masters ... I had never heard chanting at Augusta National,” Woods says of the continuous “Tiger, Tiger” bellowing that followed him from the 18th green all the way to the clubhouse and beyond. “I get goose bumps talking about it still. The chanting. The amount of support I had. So many people that wanted to see me do it.“

"It was special to have that kind of support, that kind of backing. I was going up against the best players in the world. I was trying to come from behind for the first time [to win a major]. And that support was so important.”

Once he was near the clubhouse, a group of several players—including past champions Bernhard Langer, Trevor Immelman, Zach Johnson and Bubba Watson—all waited for him wearing their green jackets. There were other players, too, including Koepka, Poulter and Xander Schauffele.

“I wanted to congratulate him,” Schauffele says. “I didn’t know him very well at the time, but I know him a little bit better since he was the playing captain in the Presidents Cup. It was a sight to see. Augusta is known for being very quiet and reserved, traditional, and it was a circus when Tiger came off that 18th hole. I think every green jacket [Augusta National member] loved it. It was something that hasn’t occurred there too often.”

Says Keegan Bradley: “I was out on the course, but I watched the end and got to see it. It was spectacular. Probably the greatest moment in the history of the game.”

Gary Woodland, who finished earlier, says he changed his flight in order to stick around and watch the finish.

“I wouldn’t do that for anybody else,” says Woodland, who won the U.S. Open later that year. “I wanted to see it. The way he finished it. The way he played when everybody else was sort of folding on 12. That was epic Tiger.

“I played with Tiger when he was struggling. Back when he couldn’t hit it on the planet. But he always found a way to get the ball in the hole. You want him to be able to go out on his own terms. We’re all here because of him, and we all look up to him. You kind of felt like you were part of it. It was special. Just so happy for Tiger.”

Tiger Woods and the trophy after winning the 2019 Masters.
Masters title No. 5. / Kohjiro Kinno/Sports Illustrated

DUE TO the weather issues—which never materialized—there was not supposed to be a second green jacket ceremony on the putting green, as is the custom, but only the one in the Butler Cabin, where Woods was presented the green jacket by Patrick Reed in a ceremony shown on TV. Usually numerous chairs are set up outside for Augusta National members and various golf dignitaries, with chairman Fred Ridley offering various remarks before the defending champion puts the jacket on the new one. None of that occurred.

The Butler Cabin ceremony took place as scheduled for the CBS audience, but Woods did still have a semi-ceremony on the 18th green, Reed putting the jacket on him, being handed the Masters trophy, and a long photo-taking session to cheers.

“To put the jacket on him was unbelievable,” Reed says. “The only thing I could think of when I did that was to not mess it up.”

After conducting his media interviews, Woods went to the Champions locker room. And then, in a twist, he had his green jacket tailored, a process that took about 90 minutes. During that time, Woods headed back to the Butler Cabin for a 15-minute interview with CBS’s Jim Nantz that aired during the rebroadcast of the final round that afternoon. There was a cocktail party in the clubhouse and then a reception in the Founders Room that included a moving speech by Woods to the members. He later posed for photos with everyone who asked.

Because the day had begun so early, Woods emerged from all of his obligations to a different scene from the one he had encountered at each of his previous four Masters victories. Instead of darkness, there was still light.“

I have never seen the golf course empty like that,” he says. “I was out there with Sam and Charlie and I said, ‘This is what Augusta National is like.’ You see the beauty of it. The rolling hills. The perfect grass. It was immaculate.

“It’s so different when nobody is out there. That’s when they started to understand how beautiful the place is.”

The win was mesmerizing, capturing attention around the world. Former President Barack Obama offered his congratulations via social media, as did current President Donald Trump, who weeks later invited Woods to visit the White House along with his family to present him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“I think this is one of the best sports stories we’ve ever seen,” says Immelman, who won the 2008 Masters—when Woods finished second, the closest he had been to victory at Augusta National since his last win in 2005.

“When I was coming through the ranks and he was at the height of his game, you always got the feeling that he knew he was the best, you knew he was the best, and that’s just the way it is.

“But a couple of years ago, after surgeries and everything else that happened, it was the first time I had ever seen him uncertain. To dig himself back from that moment to here is something that is just so special.”


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Bob Harig

BOB HARIG

Bob Harig is a senior golf writer for Sports Illustrated. He has more than 25 years experience covering golf, including 15 at ESPN. Bob is a regular guest on Sirius XM PGA Tour Radio and has written two books, DRIVE: The Lasting Legacy of Tiger Woods and Tiger and Phil: Golf's Most Fascinating Rivalry. He graduated from Indiana University where he earned an Evans Scholarship, named in honor of the great amateur golfer Charles (Chick) Evans Jr. Bob, a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America, lives in Clearwater, Florida.