AUGUSTA, Ga. – The last time the patrons at Augusta National were standing five deep around the practice green at 9:05 a.m. on a Sunday was, well … never.
Sunday mornings at the Masters tend to be genteel things, usually involving mimosas, bloody marys and some grits. This particular Sunday morning may have been cloudy and humid, but it had the chance to be historic. No one slept in.
With a strong line of storms rolling toward Georgia from the west, rain and potentially damaging winds were forecasted, so Augusta National decided to move up tee times for the final round of the 2019 Masters. Players would compete in threes instead of the traditional pairs, groups would start on both the first and the 10th tee and the leaders were slated to begin at 9:20 a.m. instead of 2:50 p.m.
Tiger Woods, starting the day at 11 under and two shots behind the overnight leader, Italy’s Francesco Molinari, was in that early group. The massive crowd around the practice green and first tee was ready to cheer, loudly and often, in support of the 14-time major winner as he tried to win his fifth green jacket.
The best place to observe Tiger Woods playing golf is on a sofa in front of a large television. It’s almost impossible to follow Woods around a golf course and see most of his shots. People from around the world want to catch a glimpse of him, so every tee box, fairway and green were packed.
On a Sunday at the Masters, the Hubble Space Telescope would have trouble keeping sight of Tiger.
Dressed in a red Nike golf shirt, black pants and black Nike Tiger Woods golf shoes, Percival Khumaolo and five of his friends came to the Masters to see Woods. This was Khumaolo’s fourth trip to the Masters, and he follows Tiger every time, employing a popular strategy: skip ahead at least a hole or two, grab a good spot and then let Tiger and the circus come to you. The South Africans watched Tiger hit this approach shot to the second hole from the fairway, then walked to the third green and listened to learn if Woods saved par.
Tanner Hunt and his friend came here from Toronto. Each wore a green t-shirt adorned with a large silhouetted yellow goat (symbolizing GOAT or Greatest Of All Time) with a red flag rising from its back like the Masters logo. Instead of Augusta National, the shirts simply said Tiger in flowing script.
“This is pretty crazy,” Hunt said, leaning over a rope barrier on the second hole and trying to see Tiger tee off. “I have never seen him before.”
Following Woods around a course makes you part of a collective, a mass of like-minded fans with the same hopes and wishes. No one was rooting against Molinari at Augusta on Sunday, but when his tee shot on the par-3 12th hole rolled back into Rae’s Creek, there were plenty of cheers along with the obligatory groans.
Those collective dreams were on full display at 1:54 p.m. at the 18th green. With Woods in the lead, three holes away, there were murmurs when a red 10 was posted on the giant leaderboard on Molinari’s line. Then pandemonium broke out when a red 14 was posted for Tiger, indicating that he’d made another birdie and now had a two-shot lead over Xander Schauffele and Brooks Koepka.
Anyone who did not get to the 18th green at least 90 minutes before Tiger arrived had no chance of seeing him putt. Between the seated patrons and people standing as far back as the first tee box, the crowd was more than 50 people deep. No one sat as Tiger tapped his par attempt, and they kept standing as he tapped in and then celebrated with his caddie, Joe LaCava, his children and his mother.
“Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!” chants broke out three times before Woods left to sign his card.
There were about 5,000 people around the 18th hole when Woods won his 15th major, but a hundred times that number are going to claim they were there.
Evan Hughes, from Bermuda, followed Woods and the masses on Sunday. He’d done it before at a PGA Tour event in Charlotte, but asked about how walking with Tiger at Augusta compared to that experience, he summed it up perfectly.
“This is a totally different animal.”