First-time visitors to Augusta National almost always remark upon the dramatic topography of the terrain, the scale of which is lost on television. Standing at the back of the clubhouse, the course falls away at your feet. The lowest point on the property is the 12th tee, way down in Amen Corner.
Tiger Woods, 43, stood on that hallowed turf during the final round of this year’s Masters, the tournament suddenly within his grasp. His playing partner Francesco Molinari had just dunked his tee shot into Rae’s Creek, a stunning mistake that would give Woods a share of the lead. Woods was suddenly seven holes away from climbing one of the tallest mountains in sports history. Swing by swing, the crowd carried him home. Woods has always been revered, but only recently has he become beloved. He played the most dominant golf of all time during the first act of his career, from 1997-2009, but since then, he has been to hell and back: the most salacious scandal of the Internet age; sex-addiction rehab; a nine-figure divorce; injury; swing problems; the chip-yips; four back surgeries; a DUI related to prescription painkillers; more rehab.
Over the last decade, Woods has been forced to reinvent himself as a person and a player. All that was left was the catharsis that would come with another major championship victory. Woods played perfect golf on the long walk up the hill to Augusta National’s final green. Chaos reigned all around him, with overwrought fans jockeying for a glimpse of history. The Internet was melting. Grizzled old champions were watching in the clubhouse, blinking back tears.
But Woods wore his steely visage until the final, victorious putt dropped. Then all heaven broke loose. Waiting behind the green was his son Charlie, whom Woods wrapped in a joyous embrace, an instantly iconic hug that was a second-generation replay of the clinch he had shared in the same spot with his father Earl 22 year earlier, after the win that launched a cross-cultural icon. Woods’ primal screams betrayed the exhilaration and relief he felt in by far the most emotional victory of his career.
“I’ve never seen him show emotion like that, anywhere, at any time in his life,” his former swing coach Butch Harmon said. “He was humbled by his own mistakes, and he came out the other side. He got himself help, he got his body right, he got his head right and he went to work on his game. I couldn’t be happier for him and his family.”
Tributes poured in for a victory that transcended sport. Michael Jordan hailed Woods for “the greatest comeback I’ve ever seen.”
Another GOAT, Serena Williams, tweeted, “I am literally in tears watching Tiger Woods. This is Greatness like no other. Knowing all you have been through physically to come back and do what you just did today? Wow! Congrats a million times! I am so inspired thank you buddy.”
PGA Tour veteran Emiliano Grillo was more succinct: “Tiger Woods for President.”
Speaking of which, President Barack Obama weighed in, too, tweeting, “Congratulations, Tiger! To come back and win the Masters after all the highs and lows is a testament to excellence, grit, and determination.”
Woods now brings all of this mojo to the U.S. Open. Pebble Beach has always been a measuring stick of greatness. Jack Nicklaus won there in 1972, the first time the U.S. Open came to Pebble: it was one of his record 18 major championship victories, the seemingly impossible standard Woods has been chasing since he was a boy.
In 2000, Woods overwhelmed Pebble Beach en route to winning the U.S. Open by 15 strokes, the greatest performance in golf history. But when the national championship returned 10 years later, it served as a cruel reminder of how far the scandal-racked Woods had fallen: he faded badly on Sunday and finished tied for fourth, shooting a four-round total of 287, 15 strokes worse than a decade earlier.
Now Pebble can serve as a marker of how far he has come since then. The Masters was Woods’ first major championship victory in 11 years. That gave him 15 for his career, restarting the ascent up Mt. Nicklaus. The U.S. Open’s two-time defending champ, Brooks Koepka, was among the players Woods vanquished at Augusta. Afterward, Koepka said, “Tiger is back.
I think 18 is a whole lot closer than people think.”
Woods will have to take a different route to get there. In 2000, he was both the game’s best driver of the golf ball and the purest putter, a potent combination. His stroke is now betraying the ravages of time; his putting was only so-so throughout the Masters, including during the final round, when he didn’t make anything longer than eight feet.
And he is now far from the most overpowering player off the tee. Woods ushered in a new era in golf, maximizing his fitness through punishing workouts. These days, every other player pushes themselves hard in the gym, and dozens of them hit it longer than Woods. But unlike these brutes, he can shape his ball to fit the twistiest fairways.
Pebble Beach is short by the standards of the modern game; avoiding the rough will be more important than driving the ball to the moon. At his champion’s press conference at the Masters, Woods said, “I felt like the strongest part of my game all week was driving the golf ball. I’ve been working on trying to shape the golf ball both ways coming into this event, and was able to do that.”
This proficiency allows Woods to maximize his greatest strength, his iron play. He has reclaimed his title as the game’s best iron player, and precise approaches will be crucial at Pebble Beach, which has some of the smallest greens in championship golf.
Woods has another x-factor in his game: the motivation to play for his 10-year-old son Charlie and his daughter Sam, 11. Much has been made of the role of Earl Woods, a former Green Beret, in his son’s life. It was only after Earl’s death, in 2006, that Tiger (nicknamed for Vietnamese soldier who saved Earl’s life in combat) lost his way. Last year, after a wrenching near-miss at the British Open, Woods spoke movingly about how much he had wanted to win so he could show his children who he used to be.
In victory at Augusta, he said, “I hope they are proud of their dad. I think the kids are starting to understand how much this game means to me, and some of the things I’ve done in the game; prior to comeback, they only knew that golf caused me a lot of pain. If I tried to swing a club I would be on the ground and I struggled for years, and that’s basically all they remember.”
In Woods’ orbit, only one other person enjoys such familial loyalty: caddie Joe LaCava. He gave up the bag of Dustin Johnson, a prolific winner who has spent a lot of time lately atop the world ranking, to join forces with Woods in 2011, when his game and life were still in shambles. Late last year, LaCava reflected on all the months he sat on the sidelines while his boss was recovering from his various surgeries.
“If I could live another hundred years, I’d wait another hundred years,” he recalled thinking. “I was never not going to work for Tiger as long as he was going to have me. I just wanted to work for him and no one else. And I think that helped a little bit, knowing that he had a friend that thought that much of him, as a person and with his game.”
In the delirious moments after the final putt dropped at Augusta, Woods kept shouting at LaCava, “We did it!” It was a surprisingly inclusive sentiment from a player who used to radiate a lone-wolf vibe. This didn’t escape the notice of a number of observers, including Eric Wood, former center for the Buffalo Bills, who tweeted, “No way 10 years ago does Tiger say, ‘WE did it’ to his caddie. That was incredible to watch!”
So Woods has turned back the clock, arriving at Pebble Beach when he is once again the biggest story in golf and perhaps the most celebrated athlete in the world. But little else is the same in this redemption story like no other. Woods now has so much, as so many, to play for. He has his flaws, like all of us, but he has become a shining example of how to better yourself.
In the champion’s press conference at Augusta, he was asked what advice he would give to others who face challenges in their lives. “Well, you never give up,” Woods said earnestly. “That’s a given. You always fight. Just giving up is never in the equation.”
The 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach takes place June 10-16. For more information, go to www.pebblebeach.com.