AUGUSTA, Ga. — Everything you needed to know about Tiger’s path to victory was wrapped up in his 18th hole bogey.
Everything you needed to know to predict he was going to win could be seen in his approach to tournaments in January, February and March.
The 2019 Masters was won long before the precision play at Amen Corner and well before the back nine birdies at 13, 15 and 16. The wise old soul knew last fall that he had all of the tools to win again. The quest to end an 11-year major drought turned to buying time, staying healthy and driving up Magnolia Lane rested and ready.
Arriving at the dangerous final tee, Woods held a two-stroke lead. His 18th hole attack plan mirrored how he mapped out his early season. Play safe, don’t try to keep up with the long bombers and do not cause unnecessary stress. His 2019 in a nutshell.
The cut three-wood — “a trap squeezer” — flew 276 off the 18th tee.
A slicing iron shot from 189 got around the magnolias and pines but never sniffed the green.
“Whiffed it,” Woods said.
Everything was about taking the trees out of play. The overzealous conservatism set up another safe pitch shot into the supportive middle tier to take six out of play.
“I was as patient as I’ve been in a number of years, especially the last three days,” Woods said during this interview in Butler Cabin. “Especially the way I was plotting my way around the course.”
All of the 2019 signs were there if you looked, listened and believed.
Excuse the copy and paste job, but here’s what I wrote for Thursday’s USA TODAY.
“His surprisingly conservative approach going against the modern bomb-and-gouge approach was about Augusta, where risk-taking is overrated until Sunday. The 75 percent swing used so far was about not hurting himself and building to peak form this week.”
A T-10 in Mexico City was hardly the stuff of Masters favorite status, but his two best finishes came at courses he’d never played, suggesting he had most of his arsenal even when the golf holes were not fitting his eye. There was even a vintage Saturday run at Riviera that reminded the 80-time (now 81) PGA Tour winner he could reel off some of the old magic. His WD from the Arnold Palmer Invitational was about protecting his surgically repaired and aging body.
But on the course, the signs were blatant. Woods repeatedly chose the safe play in surprising situations, sometimes breaking out a few Karate Kid recovery shots but never chasing clubhead speed. Even when he faced Rory McIlroy in March’s match play, Woods took the conservative approach in several match situations with Augusta in mind.
Augusta National, even as soft as it was this week, can be misunderstood by young players dreaming of mimicking the aggressive heroics of the past. As a four-time winner here, Woods always knew conservatism gives him an advantage.
If you looked and listened, you could see he was not running on fumes or burned out.
“The whole idea is to try and peak for four times a year,” he said after opening with 70.
Three days and a wild back nine shootout later, Woods emerged at the 18th needing only a bogey to win a fifth green jacket and his 15th major.
Ben Hogan will always top the golf comeback list until another golfer is hit by a bus and wins six majors. Even Woods has always conceded that one to the Hawk.
Since majors constitute the history barometer for Woods, he’s still the second greatest golfer of all time to Jack Nicklaus at 18 professional major championships.
But add those up with another era-defining victory, and Woods is inching ever closer to a place maybe unimaginable as recently as March. Unless you were taking Tiger’s word that his plan was the right one.