Editor’s note: Veteran golf writer Curt Sampson has written a new book, “Roaring Back: The Fall and Rise of Tiger Woods” chronicling Woods’ triumph in the 2019 Masters, his 15th major championship and first in 11 years. Golfweek has obtained an exclusive excerpt of the book, which will be available Oct. 29 for $26.99.
In this excerpt, Sampson writes about Woods, Brooks Koepka, Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau in the final round at Augusta National Golf Club.
The back nine on Sunday
In the din on the short walk to the seventeenth tee, while people all around him were losing their heads, Tiger kept his. His unconscious brain searched for useful precedent and found it. It was 2005 again: fourteen years before, after he’d shocked the world by surging ahead by two with his chip-in birdie on sixteen, euphoria or something fogged his execution and he’d finished, shockingly, with two bogies, and was pretty lucky to have beaten Chris DiMarco.
The tournament leader resolved not to let that happen again; he resolved so hard with his tee ball that it looked like he might crack the head on his M5. It was a slider, perfectly struck and flawlessly controlled, and way the eff out there.
Up ahead, the World Number One kept firing at it. Koepka’s super-aggressive style fit the moment and gave crystal clear insight into who this guy is as a competitor: Brooks is out there for a win, not a high finish. He hit good to great irons on every hole on the inward half except for a so-so shot on sixteen, but had buzzard’s luck with his Scotty Cameron T10 Select Newport 2 on the marble-hard greens. He’d made that eight-foot eagle putt on thirteen but otherwise . . . Putts grazed lips. They refused to come in. They walked on by. On eighteen, from 123 yards out, he hit it close one last time.
With the same up-tempo slash he’d just used with the driver, Tiger hit a forceful cut at the flag on seventeen from 143 yards, which hit and stuck, and Our Guy was home free. Probably. After a cautious two-putt he heard rapturous emanations from his gallery, but gave no indication that he was leaving his private concentration zone. Was he still time traveling, still back in ’05? He didn’t say.
Up at the green, spectators Ryan Gunnels and Jay Beach had by this time wiggled and hopped into greenside seats, finding themselves next to a willowy woman in a green jacket: former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. They chatted. “I asked her kinda what it’s like being one of the only girl members,” recalled Ryan.
As the hyperventilating gallery grew as quiet as it could get, Woods stood behind his ball on the eighteenth tee with a three-wood in his hands. He immersed himself mentally in the challenge of the moment. He removed the inhibition of fear. He harnessed self-belief and discipline. And then he swung. Hard.
As Patrick Reed had said, the tee shot on eighteen puts the lie to the idea that Augusta National is a wide-open course, but Tiger’s low, smashed slider stayed inside the corridor of trees. The ball rolled right, however, according to its spin, leaving an awkward second shot that would become pretty damn hard if Koepka made his eight-foot putt for birdie to get within one.
One difficulty of recalling the next few minutes—or all the minutes in the 2019 Masters—is that the reader knows how the drama turned out. But live, in the moment, nothing was inevitable. Koepka had yet another birdie putt inside ten feet and making it was going to change everything.
CBS-TV reporter Amanda Balionis debriefed Brooks a couple of minutes later. Tell us about eighteen, she said.
“Don’t know if I can say it on the air,” replied Golf Yoda. A good putt he’d hit. In the ball didn’t go.
Now a bogey five would earn Tiger a win by one over Brooks, Xander, and DJ. The smart move would be to use all five shots. He did. From the right edge of the fairway, with tree limbs impinging on his line, and 169 yards left to the hole, Tiger aimed way left and spun the ball back to the right. He’d cleverly left a forty yard third that would not have to traverse any pits of bright white powdered quartz. This was very close to the way Hogan played the hole when he had a bogey to win in 1951.
On the other hand: in a similar situation in 1961, tournament leader Arnold Palmer, needing a par to win, shook patrons’ hands and accepted patrons’ pats on the back as he walked up the ultimate fairway—then contrived to lose by one after scoring a double bogey. That would not be Tiger’s fate; he continued to wear his game face and apart from taking his hat off for a moment, he did not acknowledge the cheers. On TV, Billy Kratzert delivered more of his characteristic verbless sentences. “The determination to come back,” he said. “To have this opportunity.”
Tiger two-putted from ten feet. Two years after back problems almost crippled him, a decade after a devastating domestic scandal, eleven years since winning his last major, and fourteen years removed from his last first in the Masters—he’d won again. He threw his head back and roared. All happy hell broke loose.
Tiger hugged Tony, shook the hands of Tony’s caddie and of Moli and Moli’s caddie, then delightedly hugged the third loyal looper in the group, his man, Joe LaCava. Then came home-from-the-war embraces of his son, his mother, his daughter, and his girlfriend. There followed four more whooping hugs with other intimates, then a big one for his agent, Mark Steinberg, a.k.a. Steinie.
Suddenly: chanting! “Ti-ger, Ti-ger, Ti-ger”—there were ten reps, and a few more later; it was an honor never bestowed on even the greatest Masters heroes, Jack and Arnie, although it should be said that people chant more now than they used to.
As if he were a speedboat and his mom and kids and girlfriend were attached water skiers, the new champ led the way on a brisk uphill walk to the clubhouse. Giddy fans reached out for a touch from the old/new Master.
Waiting for him outside the scoring area were some of his brother golf pros. Tiger laughed with and clasped the right hands of Trevor Immelman, Zach Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson, Ian Poulter, Xander Schauffele, and Bernhard Langer. Then, standing apart from the others was the first among equals, Koepka. They hugged.
“You finish second place, you’re a little bummed out,” Brooks told the press later, but he wasn’t bummed out this time, he said, and he knew he wasn’t alone. “After he won there on eighteen there was just a monsoon of people. It’s incredible.”
A monsoon of people.
As TV showed replays of Tiger embracing Earl way back when, and Tiger with armfuls of his own kids just now, Jim Nantz said, “The completion of one of the great comebacks in any sport, all-time,” and then Jim and Tiger were hustling to the studio in the Butler Cabin for part one of the Presentation of the Threads. Part two of the green jacket ceremony was the real deal, in which people would be thanked and speeches made. It would take place on the putting green after the brief interlude on TV.
Ms. Balionis caught up with Francesco. “I think I made a few new fans today with those two double bogies,” he said with a rueful smile. “On twelve: just a bad swing. Fifteen, I just made a mess.
“I’m proud of the way I stayed calm even after making mistakes . . . On the back nine just a couple of instances where I wasn’t aggressive and kind of lost focus a little bit which is weird to say in these conditions but it’s been a long week and it’s not easy to hit every shot one hundred percent.”
Presently the man who did seem to hit every shot one hundred percent had taken a seat in the Butler Cabin’s cool basement. Across from him were Chairman Ridley and Nantz. To his left sat Patrick Reed, who wore a green jacket and was holding another one. To his right was Viktor Hovland, the low amateur in the competition. When it was his turn to say a few words, the smiling young man from Oslo gave maximum credit to his Oklahoma State University golf coach, Alan Bratton, who had caddied for him.
In response to Nantz, Tiger attempted to describe how and why he’d had about one shot’s worth more mental endurance than the others. He’d stayed present and focused and had kept control of his emotions, he said, but mostly he was “just trying to plod my way around the golf course all day, just plod my way around. All of a sudden I had the lead”—an apt reminder of the Immortal Meltdown on Twelve.
There is a call and response tradition in sports in which a reporter asks the new champ of anything, “Has it sunk in yet?” and the new champ is virtually required to say “no.” Nantz didn’t bother with this but GolfTV’s Henni Zuel and Tiger saluted the ritual in the very first exchange in their interview.
But I say sinking in isn’t worth all that much. Sinking in is for retirement years and gazing at the fire. Sinking in is for the jeweler’s chisel on the trophy. Maybe Tiger should stay in the present as much as possible regarding the 2019 Masters, to keep his glorious lucky comeback win top-of-mind as long as he can, to never just file it away. For if ever there was a moment to savor, this was it.
“To have my kids there,” Tiger said to Fred, Jim, Viktor, Patrick, and the millions watching at home. “It’s come full circle. My dad was here in ’97. Now I’m the dad.”
With that, Reed rose, Tiger got to his feet, and the others stood back. The defending champ held out the jacket and the new champ found the arm holes.
“It fits!” Tiger said.