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Tiger Woods, Masters champion again, is coming for Jack Nicklaus’ majors record

On a day at Augusta National watching something we thought we’d never see again: Woods winning the Masters.

The Masters - Final Round Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Even the operator at the iconic 18th hole leaderboard had to let loose. Aside from the golfers, the scoreboard operators may be the most important people on the grounds at the Masters. There are no video boards or TV-equipped hospitality tents and there damn sure aren’t any phones. The manual leaderboards scattered throughout Augusta National are the only thing informing you of what’s happening beyond the isolated and specific hole you’re looking at in that moment. And even then, it’s just a numbered panel with no pictures or context or details.

Operating the board is a stressful and sometimes thankless gig. The work is critical and constant with dozens of players moving around the leaderboard concurrently. While there may be an embrace of technology underneath the surface, the Masters stands out in sports because of its strict rules that keep so much of it looking the same year after year. The volunteers at the Masters do much of this work to keep it that way. They are there to perform a very specific role, to be very serious, and to avoid becoming a part of the tournament’s story.

So the silhouette of the 18th hole operator popping out from behind the board, which lords some 30 feet above the green, to emphatically raise a fist in the air in celebration jumped out even as a grinning Tiger Woods screamed and embraced loved ones below. It may have fallen outside the usual role and m.o. to remain unseen, but the serious and critical work had ended. Tiger freaking Woods had just won the Masters in the year 2019, 14 years after his last green jacket and 11 years after his last major championship.

The win came after we thought his spine disintegrated, four back surgeries, an embarrassing bout with the chipping yips, failed comebacks that lasted only weeks, a DUI, a mugshot, dash-cam videos, drug rehab, and other embarrassments, personal and professional, self-inflicted and otherwise. Hell, just this week, he faced a slide-tackling security guard that nearly sheared off his right foot, an Italian machine thought to be incapable of making a bogey, the top ranked players from the younger, stronger generation he inspired, and a race against a violent weather cell with tornadoes and hail before he got to his fifth green jacket.

It was a ride to get here — this last decade, and this last week. So if you’re the scoreboard operator, come out from behind that leaderboard, look at everyone else roaring around the sport’s most famous finishing scene, and celebrate with an uppercut fist pump like you yourself had just poured in a 15 footer to win the Masters. If you’re on the clubhouse wait staff, amble down in your white coats to the 18th green and celebrate with everyone else. If you’re another player or past champion, like Matt Kuchar or Justin Thomas or Bubba Watson or Bernhard Langer or Rickie Fowler, become a fan and not a competitor and hang out around the clubhouse to watch it all happen in person.

The Masters - Final Round
Tiger Woods and the 18th hole scoreboard.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The scene around the 18th was just the last of a morning of full of screaming and irrationality all around the course. At the 11th, Tiger’s drive went wide right again into the same nasty mix of mud and green kitty-litterish gravel that was compacted throughout the different gallery pathways outside the ropes. On Saturday, Tiger had to hit a cut shot through the chute and down to the 11th green. On Sunday, he hit a draw out of the trees and through that same chute. But just as the fans did on Saturday, they began scooping up clumps of the foul-smelling mud mixture from a week’s worth of rain and foot traffic because it had just been blessed by Tiger’s club.

In the Spectator Guide they hand out at the Masters is a note from Augusta National co-founder Bobby Jones, which he wrote in 1967. They put it on the first page of the guide every year, and it leads with:

In golf, customs of etiquette and decorum are just as important as rules governing play. It is appropriate for spectators to applaud successful strokes in proportion to difficulty but excessive demonstrations by a player or his partisans are not proper because of the possible effect upon other companies. Most distressing to those who love the game of golf is the applauding or cheering of misplays or misfortunes of a player. Such occurrences have been rare at the Masters but we must eliminate them entirely if our patrons are to continue to merit their reputation as the most knowledgeable and considerate in the world.

Let’s just say there was not strict observance of the rule against cheering the misfortunes of a player when Francesco Molinari’s ball went in the water on the 12th hole, or at several other moments on the second nine.

The wildly fist-pumping scoreboard operator perched 30 feet in the air was just the last of many to let their more staid Augusta inhibitions slide. It was the exact day and time and reason to do so.

These scenes of celebration played out all across the course on Sunday because of the history the gallery and this tournament have with Tiger. The entire day was loaded with signifiers of that history.

There was Tony Finau playing alongside Tiger in the final group. Finau, the first Tongan and American Samaon to play the Masters, said watching Tiger win the 1997 Masters “was a turning point” in his life and made him pursue golf. His dad, who could not afford to pay for buckets of range balls, set up a spray-painted mattress in a garage and Finau went to work. Twenty-two years after Tiger inspired him into the game, he was playing in the Sunday final group next to him for his 15th major.

There was the moment Tiger pulled away from what had been a day-long pursuit of Molinari, who made his second double bogey of the second nine with a funky ricochet off a tree into the water at No. 15. It was at that green that Tiger’s last best chance at the Masters went sideways with a flukey bounce off the flagstick into the water. Even as it appeared Molinari did not have his best stuff on the first nine, he still avoided bogeys with up-and-downs and unexpected saves to keep Tiger chasing. Molinari did not have it, but we still started the second nine with the Italian clear of Tiger and it felt like we could be in for a redux of last year’s Open, when Tiger made his Sunday run but Molinari was a machine unbothered by the mania and historical significance of his playing partner’s chase. Then the machine drowned on the second nine with a tee shot at the 12th that was miles short and the goofy deflection off the tree at the 15th. Standing in the middle of the fairway looking down at the 15th green, the tree is almost ornamental it’s so far to the left of the green. It should never come into play or have any impact. But Molinari’s ball found it, fell into the pond that gobbled Tiger’s ball off the flagstick in 2013, and the one player that felt like the biggest obstacle was done.

There was the 18th green meeting with his family, with CBS dovetailing the hug with his father from 1997 to the hug with his own kids in 2019. It was moving for fans watching. It was catnip for Jim Nantz and sportswriters everywhere. It was the most conspicuous reminder of his long history with this tournament.

The simple lineup of clubs Tiger had to hit into each green was another signifier of the history he has with this place. He is not the strongest, longest player in golf anymore, even if he tries to look it bursting through his mock turtleneck. That look created the monster, the group, which included top five finishers Finau and Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, that now present the biggest challenge to him actually winning events even if he’s healthy enough to play them. Finau routinely bombed it past him on Sunday.

The players are longer and stronger and so is Augusta National. Two months ago, Tiger narrated how he hit wedges into every par-4 and sometimes into par-5s when he won his first Masters in 1997. On Sunday, he narrated how he hit at least eight 8-irons into greens to win the Masters 22 years later. It’s still the Masters and his history here is an advantage, but the contrast in how he has to navigate it and the type of power he has to do it against is stark.

Tiger had the gallery behind him but that power around him and the Molinari problem made it feel at times like this would just be another Sunday tease you could add to the pile since 2008. This was not the traditional Tiger march to a win of old. He had to come from behind. He needed help. Tiger himself kept emphasizing the many moving pieces of the day. “I’m going to keep saying this, but there were so many different scenarios that could have happened on that back nine,” he said after the round. Since 2008, those scenarios have gone against him when he got close on the weekend at a major. This Sunday, four of the last six players to play the famous 12th hole put it in the water while old man Tiger played it safe way out to the left half of the green. Four of six in the water! The scenarios all fell his way in the final few hours, including the storms waiting to let him finish so he could smile and scream his way from the 18th green all the way to the clubhouse.

The scary part is that Tiger is figuring out how best to make the “scenarios” go in his favor with his Monster swigging, fused-back 43-year-old body. Whether it was a perfect lag putt on the 9th hole, when he leaned on the “putt to the picture” adage of his father, or pulling 3-woods while Finau bombed driver, Tiger is embracing a style and approach that has pushed his broken body back to being among the best players in the world.

The Masters - Final Round
Tiger Woods walks off the 16th green with a two-shot lead on Sunday.
Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

The 11-year gap between majors prompted comparisons of this 2019 Masters to the 1986 Masters, when Jack Nicklaus won 11 years after his fifth green jacket. The 2019 Masters goes into the category with 1986 as one of the greatest sporting events of all time, but from a golf perspective, it’s nothing like Nicklaus in 1986. Nicklaus said at the time of his 1986 win that he “wasn’t really a golfer anymore.” That was maybe Tiger two years ago, unable to walk and telling people at the 2017 Champions Dinner that he was done. That is not Tiger now.

Now he’s back to being the best ballstriker in the world, the area of the game where he’s the best of all time. Now he’s back to contending in three straight major championships. Now he’s back to wearing blood red mock turtlenecks. Now he’s back to winning the Masters.

Tiger’s back may crumble again. That will always be a possibility and the fact that his career once seemed over was what made a 15th major championship and Masters Sunday so surreal. But this felt less like the unexpected nostalgia trip of 1986 and more like one of the current best players in the world getting his again on a major championship Sunday.

It also felt like the start of more to come and the resumption of the chase Nicklaus’ all-time record. “The 15th was always going to be the hardest,” said a smirking Rickie Fowler about the resumption of the record chase. Whether you were another player or scoreboard operator, Sunday at the Masters was an uninhibited celebration of Tiger’s history with the sport, the fans, and the tournament. The day was loaded with markers of that past, and also of what could be coming next.