On the second Sunday in April every year, Augusta National feels less like a golf course than an operating table, upon which men are laid bare and probed for frailties not readily apparent to the naked eye. And no facility in the world does a more thorough job of diagnosing a faint heart, a deficit of intestinal fortitude, an absence of daring.
Those aren’t ailments that will appear on an X-ray or a doctor’s chart, but the final round of the Masters routinely exposes each and every one of them.
Of course, the recent vulnerabilities of Tiger Woods have been more obvious: physical injury, swing woes, personal turmoil — each a test more daunting than anything Amen Corner can pose. By comparison, the crucible of the back nine on Sunday afternoon at the Masters must have seemed a welcome relief.
The Woods we now see outside the ropes seems altered, humbled into hard-won perspective, grateful for his health and family. Inside the ropes, all that was old is new again. His renowned steeliness is unchanged.
Bulletproof self-belief has been the hallmark of many a Masters champion, men with the ability to temper emotion and summon clarity, even in the midst of a thrilling, chaotic shootout. That character trait is why Jack Nicklaus owns six green jackets, why Woods has five, why Nick Faldo has three, and why Greg Norman is often naked on Instagram.
Woods wasn’t alone in entering the final round with self-belief, but confidence is a perishable asset that can spoil during a long walk in the Georgia heat. Francesco Molinari faced down Woods at Carnoustie last year to win the British Open. In Augusta, the Italian carried himself with a papal serenity until he reached the National’s Sistine Chapel – the short 12th hole – where his lead was lost in Rae’s Creek.
Brooks Koepka, who has won three of his last six majors, and Ian Poulter, who talks like he has, also found the water. Dustin Johnson’s run, like his birdie effort at the last, fell short. Patrick Cantlay grabbed the lead on the 15th then seemed to realize where he was. He finished tied for ninth. There were others too. Xander Schauffele. Rickie Fowler. Jason Day. Tony Finau. Their dashed hopes gathered like bodies in a morgue while Woods went about his task with the clinical detachment of a veteran pathologist.
It seems that almost every year someone leaves the Masters bearing the kind of scars that don’t soon fade. Back in 1985, Curtis Strange held a three-stroke lead with six to play when Augusta National cut him open with rinsed shots on the 13th and 15th holes.
I asked Strange last year how much time passed before that pain eased. “You mean it does?” he replied with an anemic smile.
Four times Woods had passed golf’s most rigorous mental autopsy, but he was an athlete in full then.
A champion’s self-assurance doesn’t wither only in the closing holes of a major championship, but in surgeons’ offices, in tabloid headlines and in court appearances. It’s been a long and winding journey to this moment from his first Masters win in 1997, and longer still from that night two years ago on North Military Trail in Jupiter, Fla., when he reached rock bottom with a DUI arrest.
Those who believed Woods was washed up weren’t trafficking in idle analysis. Woods admits to sharing that fear in his darker moments. “It’s got to be right up there with all the things that I’ve battled through,” he said when asked about the importance of this 15th major victory that even to his admirers had long seemed so improbable. “Just was able to be lucky enough and fortunate enough to be able to do this again.”
Us too, Tiger. Us too.
Golfweek.com, April 16, 2019.