Why Tiger Woods’s Masters Win Was Different This Time

The most appealing aspect of the golf pro’s 15th major championship is that it doesn’t quite signal a return to dominance.

“It helps to be experienced,” Woods said of his thought process. “That’s all I was concentrating on. Don’t be fooled.” (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

To watch the Masters Tournament, held every spring at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, is to be caught between times. On the one hand, there is the usual 21st-century sports futurism, as in every golf tournament. Players are forever driving the ball farther with more refined equipment, the cameras that capture them do so in higher and higher definition, and tracing lines appear on-screen to track the flight of the ball. On the other hand, the Masters and its broadcast partners take pains to create the illusion that time’s forward march has been suspended, at least there. The same oversaturated shots of azaleas and pine trees appear annually, and announcers’ tranquil voices refer to the same scenes at Amen Corner and Butler Cabin. The patrons—not “fans,” pointedly—are barred from taking their cellphones onto the course.

On Sunday, the sense of temporal displacement was amplified by orders of magnitude. With a bogey putt on the 18th green that gave him a score of 13-under for the tournament, Tiger Woods won his fifth Masters and 15th major overall. At 43, he became the second-oldest winner in Masters history. It was his first victory at Augusta since 2005 and his first major title since 2008—before an infamous car crash, a public airing of the lurid details of his infidelity, four back surgeries, a DUI arrest, and numerous other ailments that threatened to permanently derail what once looked destined to be the most accomplished career in golf history. Asked to put the victory into words, Woods said, “Just unreal, to be honest with you … Winning [the first time] in ’97 and then come full circle 22 years later, to be able to do it again. This has meant so much to me and my family, this tournament, and to have everyone here, it’s something I’ll never, ever forget.” A chorus emerged, calling it one of the greatest comebacks in golf history.

Sunday’s round was captivating in its combination of familiarity and difference, the ways in which it held to and diverged from elements of the Tiger legend. Each of the previous 14 times Woods had lifted a major trophy, he had entered the final day with at least a share of the lead; his reputation was for hope-snuffing dominance, not come-from-behind heroics. This time, he began his day—at the unusually early hour of 9:20 a.m. ET, to get ahead of an approaching storm—two strokes behind the leader, Francesco Molinari. At his peak, Woods was the unquestioned best athlete on the course, his strength allowing him to launch drives other players could only chuckle at. Down the stretch on Sunday, he found himself followed by Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, and Tony Finau on the leaderboard, young bombers (and Woods acolytes) who all beat his driving numbers.

The pivotal moment—and maybe, for those inclined to look for it, proof of aged wisdom—came on the 12th hole, a short par-3 with the green lying just beyond a ribbon of water. As many of his main competitors—Koepka, Ian Poulter, Molinari, and Finau—dumped their shots in the creek, Woods lofted his safely onto the middle of the green. It was hardly a highlight in and of itself, setting up as it did a ho-hum two-putt for par, but as the other scores climbed, it gave Woods a share of the lead he would never relinquish. “It helps to be experienced,” he said of his thought process. “That’s all I was concentrating on. Don’t be fooled.”

More conventionally Tiger-esque displays followed. Woods made birdies on the par-5 13th and 15th: smashed drives, clean approaches, it might have been the year 2000. On the par-3 16th, the lead now his alone, he hit a tee shot that felt like a souvenir for the delighted crowd. Using his 8-iron, he spun the ball far past the flagstick and into a ridge that fed it back; it rolled within a foot of the hole and settled within two for an easy birdie putt.

After the tap-in on 18 made the win official, celebration came from all corners. Woods threw his arms in the air and then walked off the green to hug his family. The crowd roared. Former Masters winners put on their green jackets and lined up to congratulate him. Stephen Curry, Serena Williams, and Tom Brady tweeted their praise. Woods’s history has not been a wholly noble one, of course—the sight of his daughter and son was a reminder of the real human stakes attached to the past decade’s tabloid fervor—but on Sunday it hit the last big beat of the American comeback story, and the country indulged.

As Woods walked off the 18th green, CBS’s Jim Nantz did the announcer’s duty and looked forward to approaching majors, the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open, held at courses where Woods has won before. It seemed for a moment as if the past 11 years hadn’t happened, as if a mothballed trajectory could be dusted off again. The power of this performance, though, was that it wasn’t that; it was something else. Back on the ninth, when Woods still trailed, a poor approach shot had left him with a 70-foot birdie attempt. He tapped the ball and looped it down a dangerous decline, over 20 long seconds, to within inches of the cup. It was a virtuosic putt, but one that, 15 years ago, observers would have been disappointed not to see drop—a missed opportunity for magic. On Sunday, they went wild. Things are different now.