AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods completed a comeback from personal and professional adversity on Sunday, capturing his fifth Masters title and his 15th major tournament with a victory that snapped an 11-year championship drought and instantly returned him to the top of the sports world.
It was a monumental triumph for Woods, a come-from-behind victory for a player who had seen so much go wrong on the course and off after his personal life began to unravel on Thanksgiving night in 2009.
As such, it was only fitting that after he walked off the 18th hole on Sunday, his one-stroke victory secure, his walk to the official scoring office was gridlocked with well-wishers, including many of the golfers he vanquished over four grueling days at Augusta National Golf Club.
At 43, Woods becomes the second-oldest winner of the Masters, behind Jack Nicklaus, who won here in 1986 at the age of 46. Woods’s victory immediately reverberated beyond golf and, for that matter, sports. President Trump tweeted about Woods throughout the final holes on Sunday and immediately sent forth his congratulations.
“Love people who are great under pressure,” the President wrote. “What a fantastic life comeback for a really great guy!”
In a rare moment of agreement, former President Barack Obama tweeted, “Congratulations, Tiger! To come back and win the Masters after all the highs and lows is a testament to excellence, grit, and determination.”
[Just like the old days, Tiger Woods won the Masters by intimidating his opponents.]
Woods’s victory on Sunday had an epic feel to it. Here, on arguably the sport’s biggest stage, was its seminal figure, suddenly back on top, which is where he was a decade ago when everything suddenly went sideways for him.
What followed back then was a long, painful period of his life, in which his body repeatedly broke down and his marriage collapsed. But after prevailing on Sunday, Woods finds himself back in the pantheon of the sports world’s biggest stars, back on a level with LeBron James, Serena Williams and Lionel Messi, back in a space he entered with his first Masters victory in 1997, when he was a skinny, 21-year-old a year removed from Stanford who declared “Hello World” in a classic Nike commercial.
“It’s overwhelming just because of what has transpired,” Woods said in a television interview after his victory on Sunday. “To now be the champion — 22 years between wins is a long time — it’s unreal for me to experience this. It was one of the hardest I’ve ever had to win just because of what’s transpired the last couple of years.”
The 3,955-day drought Wood endured between major championships — his previous one came at the 2008 United States Open — would have once seemed inconceivable. The same could be said for the 5,117 days it took for Woods to finally win his fifth title at Augusta National, a course so suited for his game that Nicklaus once predicted that Woods would collect more than the combined 10 Masters titles that he and Arnold Palmer, the first two golfing titans of the television age, won there.
And yet there was an eerie familiarity to what took place on Sunday. Woods played his final round before crowds that were 10 to 12 deep for hundreds of yards at every hole — from the tee box to the green.
In a sense, though, the gallery that really mattered to Woods was much smaller and consisted of his two children — his 10-year-old son, Charlie Axel, and his 11-year-old daughter, Sam Alexis. They were among the first to greet him once his triumph was complete. Neither had been alive when Woods basically ruled the sport.
Making things even sweeter was Woods being able to bend over and hug them both without apparently feeling any pain in his surgically repaired back. They essentially knew of their father’s exploits from photographs and other people’s memories — and they knew golf mostly as a game that had caused their father terrible distress. But not anymore.
The years between Woods’s 14th and 15th victories in major tournaments included an immense number of setbacks, although his struggles actually date to the 2006 death of his father, Earl, who was his soul mate and putting guru. Two years later, Tiger Woods won the United States Open victory on a left leg in need of surgery, but a year after that a marital dispute about his philandering led to a car accident and a succession of lurid headlines. A divorce followed in 2010.
The ensuing years brought repeated back surgeries, which led to an addiction to painkillers and culminated in pain so searing that, before an operation in 2017, he questioned whether he could play professionally again. That year he hit rock bottom when he was charged with driving under the influence after he was found in a painkiller haze at the wheel of his car with the motor running.
Woods said that when he was down he gained strength from what he described as his children’s “infectious happiness.”
“To have my kids here it’s come full circle,” he said after Sunday’s final round. “My dad was here in ‘97 and now I’m the dad with two kids there.”
With a closing round of two-under 70, Woods edged out two other major champions, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, as well as Xander Schauffele, a 25-year-old from San Diego. Woods’s 72-hole score of 13-under 275 was one shot better than he managed in 2005 when he won for the fourth time. And it was the first time that Woods, who started the day two strokes off the lead, had come from behind to win a major tournament.
Woods’s children were also with him last summer when he saw the first real glimmers of hope in his comeback — at the British Open at Carnoustie. They saw him play his way into contention over the first three days of that tournament and then briefly take the lead in the final round on his way to a tie for sixth. Afterward, he told his children that he hoped they were proud of how he fought and refused to give up.
At Augusta, his children arrived Saturday night, providing some extra motivation for Woods to prevail. Parenthood has imbued Woods with extra patience, which came in handy on the front nine on Sunday, when he made back-to-back bogeys while elsewhere on the course players were leapfrogging over one another and into contention with birdies and eagles. Indeed, late in Sunday’s round, 10 players, including Woods, were within two strokes of the lead.
Amid that intense grouping, it was Woods who found a way to finish first.
“For them to see what it’s like to have their dad win a major championship, I hope that’s something they will never forget,” Woods said afterward.
Woods’s first Masters title, by an astounding 12 strokes, left an indelible mark on the sport. He became the first African-American — Woods is also half Thai — player to win golf’s most exalted championship. He reshaped the game, making it more athletic and more popular — especially outside the United States.
In 1997, the first person at Augusta to greet Woods as he came off the final hole was his father, whose grand plan Woods had realized with his victory. His mother, Kultida, was also there. She was also on hand Sunday, but after her embrace, Woods took a few steps forward and was smothered by his second family — the other players, some of whom were almost young enough to be his children.
On Sunday, Woods took the lead for good on the 15th hole and when he arrived at the 16th tee, a familiar face — the swimmer Michael Phelps — was standing close enough to touch Woods.
Phelps, the winner of 28 Olympic medals, had spent eight weeks in a recovery center in 2014 after trying to self-medicate himself with alcohol. In 2016, he was back on top of the swimming world at the Rio Olympics. And a year later, he lent an ear to Woods after his problems with painkillers emerged.
Now Phelps was on hand to watch Woods seal his own comeback. Which he did, with a tap-in on the 18th hole.
“I was just trying to plod my way along the golf course all day,” Woods said. “When I tapped the putt in — I don’t know what I did, I know I screamed.”
And as he donned the winner’s green jacket for a fifth time, he said something everyone knew but might have forgotten. “It fits.”