Two years after expressing fears about his career at the Champions’ Dinner at Augusta National due to serious back issues, Tiger Woods is the Masters champion for a fifth time after claiming a 15th major title.
On a dramatic final day in the event’s 83rd staging, the 43-year-old completed one of the most incredible comebacks in sporting history by proving that he is indeed back to his very best.
Winning the Tour Championship in Atlanta at the end of last season - his first title triumph in five years - after requiring no less than four back surgeries was quite amazing, but this was fairytale stuff.
It bridged a 14-year gap in this particular event. It was also his first major win since 2008. Maybe Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 is under threat once again.
It was a painful end to the season’s opening major for Open champion Francesco Molinari, who held a two-shot lead and was cruising along until finding Rae’s Creek at the short 12th then getting wet again at the 15th.
That double blow ended his hopes of becoming the first Italian player to slip into a Green Jacket, but, based on this effort, he’ll have chances to make amends for this ultimate disappointment.
With all due respect to Molinari and the host of others who ended up in contention with six holes to play, the tournament got the winner it was looking for and what a boost it is for golf.
Playing in the same group as the Italian, Woods took the outright lead for the first time with his fifth birdie of the day at the 15th and, after almost holing his tee shot in making a 2 at the 16th, it was a victory march for the American up the final two holes.
In signing off with a 70, he finished with a 275 total, winning by a shot from Dustin Johnson (68), Xander Schauffele (68) and Brooks Koepka (70).
Molinari, who rallied to birdie the 17th as he closed with a 74 to end up joint-fifth alongside Tony Finau (72), Jason Day (67) and Webb Simpson (70), with Jon Rahm (68), Patrick Cantlay (68) and Rickie Fowler (69) sharing fifth spot on 10-under.
On a day when history was made - the bad weather on the way meant this was the first time that a two-tee start was used here in the final round - Molinari headed out with a two-shot lead and wasted no time showing the strengths that have helped take his game to a new level over the past 12 months.
Watched by his long-time coach Denis Pugh, he safely found the first fairway, as did Woods, before his approach ran off the back edge on the left. Going with the putter, his third was too pacey and ran about 15 feet past the hole. “Maybe that’s the sign of a little nerves,” quipped one fan in the crowd - but in it went for a par.
Woods was wild with a 3-wood from the tee at the long second. “S***,” declared another fan as he walked towards the trees on the left. After taking his medicine, a par was always on the cards. Just short in two, Molinari would have been disappointed that he was unable to convert from eight feet for birdie.
The Italian had very few rooting for him in the throng following the final group. They were there for Woods, who delivered exactly what they were looking for as he spun his approach back at the fourth to six feet and rolled that one in. “Yo, baby,” was the popular shout that greeted Woods moving to within a shot of the lead.
As the final group had been down on the second green, the wind really whipped up. Pondering his tee shot at the fourth, Woods not only looked up at the tree tops but also walked forward to have a look at the flag on the third. Despite that, he picked the wrong club, coming up short to immediately give back that shot.
It was back-to-back bogeys following a three-putt at the fifth. That completed a full set of 5s for Woods this week there - the first time he’s done that at the same hole in this event. All of a sudden, Molinari was three in front as Koepka had just bogeyed the sixth in the match in front.
Highlighting that wind factor, the leader airmailed the green at the sixth. His short-game touch was exquisite, though, and the bogey-free run was up to 49 holes. That’s where it ended after a pulled drive led to a bogey - just his second of the event - at the seventh. Woods stiffed his approach there for the second day running for a two-shot swing in his favour. That development on the giant leaderboards stirred the exitement.
How would Molinari respond to his first setback since the 11th hole on Thursday? He was bunkered off the tee at the long eighth, but still managed to make a birdie, which was matched by Woods. Both players then made par-4s at the ninth, where Woods judged a long putt from right up at the back of the treacherous green to perfection while Molinari holed a tester from six feet. He turned for home one ahead of Woods and two in front of Koepka after he’d birdied the eighth.
Woods was blocked out on the right after his tee shot at the tenth, forcing him to play out sideways and leading to a bogey. Molinari missed the green with his approach from the middle of the fairway but almost holed the chip. His short game used to be average, but now it is off the charts. He’d single-putted seven of the first 10 greens and required just 13 putts in total. He led by two again.
As both players made pars at the 11th - Woods made the most of getting lucky in the trees on the right - the challenge of not only Koepka but also Poulter appeared to have ended up in a watery grave. A visit to Rae’s Creek at the 12th cost them double-bogeys. It appeared we had a two-horse race, but how quickly things can change here on the final day.
Molinari also found the water - the one place he really shouldn’t have been close to - at the 12th, as did Tony Finau, the other player in the final group. Using his experience, Woods found the heart of the green. The resultant par earned him a share of the lead as Molinari’s mistake cost him two shots.
The pair had company on 11-under after Schauffele had made a sudden thrust on the back of four birdies in six holes from the eighth. Another one at the 14th and he was tied for the lead...but not with either Molinari or Woods. Out of nowhere almost, Cantlay had charged to the top of the leaderboard. An eagle at the 15th, where he judged a left-to-right curler to perfection, took him to 12-under.
Koepka, a major machine these days, bounced back from his setback with an eagle at the 13th. Molinari and Woods both made birdies there to share the lead with Schauffele after Cantlay’s tee shot stayed up on the right shelf at the 16th, costing him a bogey. It was goodnight Vienna as the youngster then dropped another shot at the next.
Up ahead, the clubhouse target had been set by Jason Day. The Australian, who had required on-course treatment for a back injury just two holes into the event on Thursday, finished with a birdie. A closing 67 left him on 11-under. Would it be good enough? No.
Johnson made his third birdie in a row at the 17th to move to 12-under. Continuing his fightback, Koepka also reached that number with a 4 at the 15th.
The lead then became 13-under as Woods, having safely found the dancefloor in two, also birdied the 15th, where disaster struck Molinari. After laying up, his third clipped a pine cone high in the trees and ended up in the water. Wet for the second time in four holes, a double-bogey 7 knocked him out of the battle. Everyone else was effectively knocked out of it, too, when Woods, with the whiff of victory in his nostrils, almost holed his tee shot at the 16th. To say the place went wild would be an understatement.
That was nothing, though, compared to what followed as Woods holed the winning putt up at the 18th. “Tiger, Tiger, Tiger,” roared the crowd as Woods celebrated like he has never celebrated before.
Waiting him at the back of the green were his two children, Sam and Charlie, and also his mum, Kultida. When Woods, still smiling from ear to ear, arrived at the scorer’s area, some of the players he’d just beaten were there to greet him.
What next for this remarkable sportsman?