LOUISVILLE (WAVE) — The gods of the green jacket finally decided it was time to let Tiger Woods back into the most exclusive club in golf.
They waited a long time, more than a decade, because his sins against the game and his vast talent were egregious. So a highly publicized sex scandal was followed by a series of injuries and misfortune.
The game missed him dearly because of the charisma he brought to the course every time he teed it up. And although several fine, young players were anointed as the next coming of Tiger — all those McIlroys, Spieths, and Fowlers — he never came close to being replaced.
At times, his game was so different than the prodigy who won 14 major titles between 1997 and 2008 that it was painful to watch him. Many predicted he was washed up, even though he continued to be golf’s biggest TV draw.
But Tiger’s parents, a former U.S. Army sergeant and a Buddhist he met in Thailand, gave him a set of genes that not only enabled him to play the game as nobody ever has, but that gave him a steely resilience.
He would not give up. Someday he would win a 15th major, narrowing the game to Jack Nicklaus’ record to only three. He did it by working tirelessly on his swing and body. And he did it by finally being able to forgive himself for his transgressions.
So here he was yesterday, on a windy and sun-dappled afternoon at the golf shrine known as Augusta National, striding resolutely up the fairway toward the 18th green.
He had a two-shot lead and it was obvious that only a particularly cruel twist of fate could deny him a fifth green jacket, only one behind Nicklaus’ record. So the galleries packed along the fairways and around the green strained to get a snapshot of history.
After barely missing his par putt, Tiger tapped in for bogey and a one-shot win. And then Augusta, that bastion of tradition, turned into, well, a European soccer crowd.
The object of their adoration, wearing a red shirt as he always does on the Sunday major, hugged everybody he held dear, including his mother and children. He fist-pumped, slapped outstretched hands, and and graciously accepted congratulations from his fellow players gathered outside the scorer’s room.
His smile was a beautiful thing.
But if anybody expected a public display of blubbering, they don’t know how tightly wound Tiger is. Whatever he was feeling deep in his heart of hearts, he would share it only with family, in private.
It’s good for golf and today’s young fans to see Tiger welcomed back into the club. Neverthelsss, the player who won yesterday was different from the guy who won all those majors years ago.
In the prime of his youth, Tiger was all about strength and confidence. He hit it farther than anybody, and, if he got in trouble, so what? He hit shots nobody had ever seen before, miracles from behind trees and deep rough. On the greens, he was automatic with the putter from 12’ in.
But age and all his physical problems forced Tiger to change his game and his thinking, sometimes against his will. The player who won yesterday was a thinking man’s player, one who took what the course gave him and never tried to impose his will on the game.
The final round started earlier than normal, due to dire forecasts of rain and storms. The field teed off on both No.1 and No. 10, in order to get in the round before the weather hit.
One after another, the young bucks fired and fell back. Third-round leader Francisco Molinari, who had made only one bogey all week, made two doubles on the back nine.
And so it went for Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele, Brooks Koepka, Jason Day and all the others who dominated the leader boards throughout the week. At one crucial point or another, each one hiccuped.
But the old man in red remained cool as a can of Bud Light. He never showed anxiety and he never wavered. He just played the course, blocked out the noise and the expectations, and came to realize that the gods of the green jacket were on his side.
It could be his final major. Or he could win three more to tie Nicklaus. When you’re 42, and your body has been surgically repaired so many times, you don’t know what to expect from day to day, much less year to year.
But when Tiger’s in the hunt, golf takes on an almost mystical quality that nobody else, no matter how good their game, can duplicate. He still is perhaps the most magical name in sports, significantly ahead of Tom Brady, Bryce Harper, Seth Curry, or any of the modern superstars.
When defending champion Patrick Reed slipped the green jacket over Tiger’s shoulders, he didn’t get tears-eyed. He just smiled and said, “It fits.”
Yes, it did. Every bit as snugly as Tiger Woods fits Augusta National and the Masters.
Bravo, Tiger. It’s nice to have you back where you belong.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter from Louisville who contributes regular columns to WAVE3.com.