I can’t tell if it’s golf, or Tiger Woods or Augusta National. But what we saw Sunday is the kind of convergence that reverberates long after. It’s the kind of drama that goes way beyond the immediate flux of having four different solo leaders on the back nine Sunday – Woods, Francesco Molinari, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay – and three others who were at some point tied for the lead: Tony Finau, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka.
There’s something about this game – the fine line between triumph and disaster. Molinari was two swings away from a very impressive win. If he doesn’t rinse those two shots – his tee shot on the par-3 12th hole and on his third shot at the par-5 15th – he ends up shooting 15-under par and wins his second major. As well as he played all week outside of that – going 49 holes in a row without a bogey until the 7th hole Sunday – what he will take away and what all of us will remember is the two weak short irons that ruined his chances. Such is golf.
Only auto racing is comparable in terms of the tiny margin between winning and losing. Whenever I get asked about what’s wrong with such and such player, I remind them that the mechanics involve a weirdly shaped piece of metal with a flat face traveling at 115 miles per hour along three dimensions, and if any of those planes is off by two percent or more at impact the shot will be off. The physics alone are daunting, which might be why Bryson DeChambeau is so interesting. He’s the first professional golfer to articulate the science as such and make it part of his pre-shot routine.
In Tiger’s case, the issue for a decade has been more vexing than mechanics. It’s been a combination of well-documented personal indiscretion and humiliation followed by a near-breakdown of his body. A few years ago it was still very much an open question whether he’d ever be able to play golf at all, let alone compete. This is a guy who at one time couldn’t lift up his kids. It’s taken a succession of surgeries, including four back procedures, just to get him back to the point where he could stand upright and hit wedge shots.
Anyone who has been through a surgery knows how scary and tender the recovery process is. You feel helpless in the run-up to the procedure and so take the doctor’s judgment as the only way out. And all through post-op recovery and the weeks of physical therapy and stretching needed to regain range of motion and strength, you feel tentative, insecure and worried you’ll never regain your old form – much less dare to imagine you will ever be able to improve on your previous best.
In golf, we are told, you have to trust your swing. That holds for recreational golf as well. How much more commitment and focus are needed to regain the kind of firepower and consistency required to compete on the PGA Tour and be relevant in majors?
Only people deep within Woods’s inner circle have any real idea how far he has come. We got a glimpse of them early Sunday afternoon, after he sank that one-foot putt, thrust his arms up in a gesture of triumph and embraced those closest to him over the years, including his family and caddie Joe LaCava.
It was that family embrace that evoked the scene of another embrace 22 years ago, when Woods won his first major at The 1997 Masters and threw his arms around his dad, the late Earl Woods. For anyone familiar with tales of personal redemption, the imagery was suffused with a tinge of irony.
Woods caps historic week at Augusta National
Woods' win completed a remarkable ten-day stretch for Augusta National that started with the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur, followed by the national finals of the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship on the Sunday before The Masters.
There was something poignant about the club welcoming 72 of the country’s leading female amateurs for a Friday practice round prior to the Saturday finals of the ANWA. And It was inspiring to see the way the women responded to the moment, culminating in the impressive sportsmanship shared by Maria Fassi and eventual winner Jennifer Kupcho as they battled it out over the final nine.
For fans of golf architecture worried about how modern length has comprised old courses, it was great to see Kupcho’s fairway wood to the green on the par-5 13th hole for eagle – the shot that proved decisive in her win. It was the kind of bold play that original course co-designers Bobby Jones and Alistair MacKenzie had in mind when they built that hole and hoped that players would have to make “a momentous decision” about going for the green.
It is a momentous decision when you’re faced with a fairway wood from a hanging lie to green perched just beyond a creek. By the time Woods came to that hole on Sunday, he had only an eight-iron left from 161 yards out. And yet, for all the focus on length of late and presumed obsolescence of strategy, once again, the turning point of the round came on the shortest hole on the course: the 155-yard par-3 12th hole. Astonishingly, four of the last five players out there hit their tee shots into the water. Only Woods found the green, safely left of the pin and away from trouble.
It was the kind of safe, smart play that only comes from knowing your way around and understanding the places to miss your shot. Of course it helps, as Woods did, if you lead the field in greens in regulation all week, hitting an average of 14.5 greens each round against a field average of 11.5.
It’s possible to dissect Woods’ win numerically, in terms of all the technical things he did right. And that’s precisely what he had been working on, once he got his body in shape to play at all.
But there’s also the mastery of this unique golf course, with more ground game effect around greens and on putting surfaces than any other in championship golf. (Note: by comparison, most British Open courses have simpler putting surfaces.) Even in the rainy, wet, slow conditions we saw this week, it mattered where you hit the ball and how you managed your shot shaping. It’s something Woods has been prepping for over the last six months.
A great golfer on a great stage against great competition. That’s what we saw on Sunday. Matters of redemption are best left to spiritual counselors. It’s just good to watch a fabulous athlete back in an arena where he belongs.