Last week’s column recognized the ground breaking Augusta National Women’s Amateur’s inaugural event. I said it would take something special to eclipse Jennifer Kupcho’s thrilling victory. Well that’s exactly what we got.
Sportswriters will devote more inches to Tiger Woods’ fifth green jacket than most sports stories over the past decade or two. I don’t know that I can journalistically compete on framing what Tiger’s victory means to our sport; it’s certainly one of the greatest comebacks in sports history. It elevates Tiger to a point of longevity within our sport that now rivals Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. And it re-ignites what could be the most fascinating “chase” in sports history, as Tiger at 15 is once again in hunt of Nicklaus’ record 18 majors, one of the remaining “figures” on sports’ statistical Mount Rushmore.
For me however, and what is always my goal for this space, I want to share just a few of my personal takeaways from the week.
Tiger is now the smartest player at Augusta.
Watch Tiger’s post-win press conference. He talked about his ability to miss the ball in the correct place. I may be wrong, but I thought I read he didn’t make a double bogey all week. Tiger has always had a great short game (minus the 12-24 month “yip” period he went through a few years back). And when he’s able to miss it in the right spot, he will gain shots on the field simply by not making a big number when others eventually will.
At times, I thought he was almost too conservative; the tee shot in the final round on the par-three fourth is an example of this. Coming off a momentum building birdie on the third, Tiger was only one back. Yes, the fourth was playing something like 240 yards. And yes, long there is no good. But with the ability to really put the pressure on then leader Francisco Molinari, Tiger made what appeared to be good contact and came up 30+ yards short of the pin. His failed up and down from short of the green could have been a tournament-costing bogey.
But then two par threes later, the whole tournament switched in Tiger’s favor when Molinari and Brooks Koepka found the water short of the par-three twelfth green. It’s an inexcusable miss that cost them both. Tiger, having seen both shots come up short, calmly took the water out of play and hit a short iron on the center of the green. His three there made up two shots and put him a tie for the lead with six holes to play.
Two draw swings won him the tournament.
Tiger was always a master of working the ball both ways. Past tense. For years now, Tiger has struggled off the tee. High blocks to the right were his common miss. To combat that, Tiger built a new swing that got him “un-stuck” on the way down. This new swing created a power fade ball flight. More consistent and more controllable? Yes. Ideal for Augusta National? Not so much.
But for this year’s Masters, Tiger said coming into the event that he had seen some improvement on his draw shots. To win, he would have to navigate four key final round swings.
The first is an eagle creating opportunity on the second hole. A big draw off the tee would set up an iron second shot into the par-5 green and a chance for eagle. Tiger over-hooked the tee shot into the trees and had to settle for a disappointing par.
The second key draw is the tee shot on 10. With a little hook off the tee, a drive catches the fairway slope and rolls down the hill to a manageable distance for a key second shot. Tiger blocked his tee shot in the right trees and was forced to punch out sideways. A very disappointing bogey was the result.
Watching the event live, I thought those two poor draw-swings had potentially cost Tiger the tournament. Then came the mess at 12 (see above) and all of a sudden Tiger is tied for the lead going onto 13.
And here we go ...
I promise you Tiger knew the importance of the tee shot on 13. And he crushed it. His draw around the corner left him with an 8-iron into the par 5 green, which he hit safely and made birdie. I honestly believe if that drive on 13 didn’t go where it did, Tiger wouldn’t have won the tournament.
The other winning draw swing was on 16.
Diehards like myself all know where that pin will be. We all know the shot required to get close. Heck, I’ve never been on the grounds, but I can close my eyes and picture the 175 yard draw I want to hit from that tee. Too far right and it’s an almost impossible two-putt. Too far left and water, sand, and an impossible up and down await. But hit that butter draw with two bounces into the back slope and that ball will have a chance to go in.
In the lead for the first time, and reminiscent of Nicklaus in 1986, Tiger instantly knew he hit the shot he was looking for. His little draw 8-iron, which almost went in for a hole-in-one, settled two feet from the hole and gave him the birdie and two shot lead he desperately wanted with two holes to play.
There’s no question Tiger hit a lot of great shots to win last week. But in my opinion, the two swings on 13 and 16 are what won him the event.
The weather (or projected weather) also was key.
Tiger is smarter. Tiger successfully hit the two draw swings he needed to. But Tiger was also extremely lucky… on Saturday night.
With storms projected for 3 p.m. Sunday, The Masters Committee decided, for the first time, to move Sunday’s tee times up to early morning and play the final round in threesomes. This was huge for one player — Tiger Woods.
Tiger more than anyone knows the birdies that are available on the back nine Sunday at The Masters. But he also knows the importance of having the most holes remaining.
Come from behind competitors with great Sunday rounds are forced to play Augusta’s famous back nine first. With tucked pins and risk/reward par fives, players in that situation are forced to continue to play aggressively. Conversely, competitors in the last group advantageously know when they have to play aggressively and when they should be more conservative.
The old adage for pairing is First In Last Out, meaning the first player to finish on Saturday goes out last on Sunday. Francesco Molinari was leading at 13 under, so he was clearly in the last group. But Tony Finau’s 64 on Saturday put him in the clubhouse at -11 before Tiger posted his 54-hole score of -11, meaning had the tournament’s final round gone off in its traditional twosomes, Tiger would have been in the group in front of Molinari.
Would that have made a difference? Did Molinari feel the “Tiger-effect” of being in Tiger’s group with the whole golf world rooting for Tiger? Would Tiger have played his second shots on 13 and 15 as “conservatively” as he did if he was one hole ahead of the leader Molinari?
I don’t know the answer to those questions. But I would bet every penny I have that if asked, Tiger would absolutely have preferred to play in the last group with Molinari versus being in front of him.
In the end, it’s impossible to point to one reason why Tiger won last week. Or properly do justice to the importance this victory will have on our sport.
It was a win with many themes — determination, comebacks, mental strength, generational celebrations, all-time great debates, the re-emergence of our sport on a global level and I’m sure many others.
But let’s not forget the theme behind what will probably be the lasting image of the 2019 Masters — the split screen image of Tiger hugging his dad in 1997 and Tiger lifting his son in 2019.
Jim Nantz is the world’s preeminent sports broadcaster. And if he can’t get through the question in Butler Cabin without pausing and tearing up, then we should all know we witnessed something special. Thanks, Tiger.
Jonah Karzmer is a former golf professional who writes a Sunday golf column for The Vindicator. In his spare time, he sells commercial insurance and loves getting feedback on his weekly columns via email at Jonah@thekarzmerinsurance.com.