Twenty-two years ago, Tiger Woods walked off the 18th green at Augusta National and full-on collided with his father, Earl. It was the hug heard around the world, jubilation personified, and the result of decades of long hours, hard work, and near-obsession paying off. The moment represented so much, not only for Tiger—who had just won his first major at the age of 21—but for the sport, the business of golf, and culture at large. As Nike cofounder Phil Knight told Golf.com two years ago: “The Earl-Tiger hug is confirmation of, ‘This is everything we worked so hard for.’ Earl had raised him for that moment, and he had come through for him. Golf was really a white man’s sport. And in that moment it changed.”
That hug came to represent the start of something nearly unimaginable: an 11-year run that included 14 major wins, 62 PGA Tour victories, a previously unseen level of dominance in golf, and a complete refashioning of the game. Tiger ascended to a place where only Jack Nicklaus had gone before him, and inserted himself into the conversation about golf’s all-time greatest player—a conversation that he may have finally ended this weekend. So it was only fitting that at the 2019 Masters, another hug came to mark a new era:
He really did it. If I have to say that a few times in this article, please forgive me. It still doesn’t quite feel real. After more than a decade of competition, four back surgeries, countless quotes about pain, suffering, and a belief that he may never play golf again, Tiger Woods won his 15th major tournament and fifth Masters on Sunday afternoon.
He did so amid a crowded field full of major winners and up-and-coming youngsters—at one point, when Tiger was playing no. 13, there were 11 people within two shots of the lead. And he did so by doing a few things that he, and golfers across the history of the sport, have never done before. Famously, Tiger had never won a major championship when he trailed at the 54-hole mark of a tournament. After coming into Sunday’s round sitting two shots back of playing partner Francesco Molinari, that’s no longer the case. This was also his first major win after he underwent spinal fusion surgery in April 2017, which was a procedure many thought may end his career. Then there’s the Masters record: Woods now owns the longest gap (14 years) between Masters victories in the history of the competition.
“It’s overwhelming,” Woods told Jim Nantz in Butler Cabin after his round. “I think just because of what has transpired, and last year I was just very lucky to be playing again. The previous dinner, the Champions dinner, I was really struggling and missed a couple of years not playing this great tournament. To now be the champion [again], 22 years between wins … it’s just unreal for me to experience this.”
Millions of golf fans woke up Sunday morning—and early Sunday morning, as Augusta National moved up the start time to navigate around an impending storm—either believing firmly that Tiger could win, or hoping it was possible despite lingering doubts. Woods got close to gaining major titles at last year’s Open Championship, when he played in the final round with eventual champion Molinari, and the 2018 PGA Championship, when he came in second. And though those were great signs and touching feats in their own right, some questioned whether Woods could tap back into that famous killer instinct and finish one—or more—out.
A win at the Tour Championship in September, which was played at East Lake Golf Club just a two-hour drive from Augusta, helped make the idea seem possible. It was clear he could still win something, which was a step in the right direction. But still: Majors are different. And at the time just seeing Tiger make a victorious walk up an 18th fairway felt like enough.
But then came Sunday. Woods hit the first tee wearing his signature red and black, and sporting a mock turtleneck that looked eerily similar to the one he wore back in 2005, the last time he won the Masters. He had an up-and-down front nine, but made the turn at 12-under par (1-under on the day), one shot back of Molinari. From there, he held steady while the world around him started crumbling. Four of the six tee shots in Woods’s grouping and the grouping in front of him ended up in Rae’s Creek at no. 12. Then at no. 15, Molinari hit an approach shot off a pine cone and into the water. Molinari double-bogeyed both 12 and 15, and though guys like Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, and Jason Day tried to stay in the mix, they all ran out of holes.
No. 15 was when the possibility of a Tiger victory seemed real for me. That was the hole where he accessed a mental place that is still unparalleled in the sport. Golf fans talk a lot about Molinari and Koepka being machines on the course, and they are. There was a stretch from the first to early-fourth rounds when Molinari went 49 holes without making a bogey. And there were times this weekend when it felt like no matter where Koepka hit a tee shot, things would wind up fine. But lest we forget, Tiger was the original machine on Sundays, and that showed up again this weekend.
He birdied 15, then hit a laser of a shot into the 16th green, and watched his ball filter down to within gimme range of the hole. The birdie there put him at 14-under on the weekend, and gave him a two-shot lead for the remaining two holes. After a par at 17 and a bogey on 18, he let loose a Tiger roar of his own.
All week there was talk of Tiger going up against players who were initially inspired by his effect on the game. Tony Finau, one of Woods’s Sunday partners, told Nantz that explicitly on Saturday after he finished his round and it was clear they’d be playing together on Sunday. Most of the young guys in the field have said the same during their careers—and many of those players were waiting for Woods as he walked off the 18th green. Rickie Fowler seemed out of his mind with joy; Justin Thomas’s red face indicated there may have been some happy tears shed; the stoic Koepka stopped to give Tiger a handshake and some words of encouragement; and noted Sunday red-and-black wearer Patrick Reed was the one to hand him the green jacket.
These guys finally got the chance to play with the Tiger they watched growing up—the one who was a world-killer, who was unflappable in the face of pressure; the one they remembered from that signature hug back in 1997. And they got their first whooping from Tiger in a major championship in the process. What’s next for Woods is hard to predict—whether more majors will be on the horizon, or if this will be the storybook capper on a historic career. But either way, he really, truly did it. Wow.