While he was winning 14 majors between 1997 and 2008, Tiger Woods established a 100 percent predictable model for divining whether he was going to win a Grand Slam event going to the final round.
When leading or sharing the lead after 54 holes, Woods was 14-0 in Grand Sam events. When he was trailing going to the final round, he was 0-for-everything else.
His spotless record ended at the 2009 PGA Championship when he was taken down in the final round by Y.E. Yang, who shortly thereafter returned to the obscurity from whence he came.
A few months after his first major failure, Woods’ personal life publicly unraveled. Injuries and surgeries followed. His 14-1 record when leading majors after 54 holes remained intact, but his career winless mark when trailing after 54 holes continued, not being seriously challenged until last year, when he made Sunday runs at both the British Open and PGA Championship.
All that ended Sunday when Woods collected his fifth green jacket for winning the Masters, the first time in his career he won a major when trailing after 54 holes. Woods’ victory was celebrated far and wide by members of the print and broadcast media, as well as on social media.
Among those heaping praise on Woods and his comeback from multiple back surgeries and personal embarrassments were former and current players, some of whom were also in position to win in Augusta.
Woods had never rallied in the final round of a major before Sunday for two simple reasons. Players like Mark O’Meara, Rich Beem, Ben Curtis, Michael Campbell, Zach Johnson and Angel Cabrera hung tough in the final round to hold off challenges by Woods, who was never able to pull off a sensational Sunday surge like Jack Nicklaus in the 1986 Masters or long-time rival Phil Mickelson in the 2004 and 2010 Masters or the 2013 British Open.
Only twice in his storied career has Woods ever mounted a furious final round comeback in a major – in the 1998 British Open and 2002 PGA. That part of his history remains intact, as Woods needed only a modest score of 2-under 70 Sunday to overtake Francesco Molinari, who channeled the infamous Sunday finishes of Jordan Spieth in 2016 and Seve Ballesteros from the memorable ’86 Masters.
Like Spieth three years ago, Molinari had the lead in the final round until hitting his tee shot into Rae’s Creek on the 12th hole. And like Ballesteros three decades before that, he also found the pond fronting the 15th green, ending his hopes of a victory in Augusta.
Molinari was not the only player to assist Woods’ quest for a first major since his courageous playoff win over Rocco Mediate in the 2008 U.S Open at Torrey Pines. Brooks Koepka and Patrick Cantlay, who shared second place with Dustin Johnson one shot behind Woods’ winning total of 275, both had excellent chances to win Sunday, but unlike Woods, were unable to do what needed to be done over the closing holes.
Woods won the 2019 Masters the way champions are supposed to finish off victories at Augusta National. He birdied holes 13, 15 and 16 to grab a late lead, with his near ace at the 16th allowing him to play the 18th hole cautiously, resulting in a bogey that reduced his final margin of victory to one shot at 13-under 275.
Sunday’s final found was one of the most closely contested in tournament history, with 10 players within four shots of Molinari’s lead when the last threesome made the turn. Because of a threat of late afternoon thunderstorms, tee times were moved up for the fourth round, with the field teeing off in threesomes off both nines, the first time ever on Sunday in Augusta.
Until making double bogey at 12, Molinari held the lead Sunday, and was two in front of Woods as the two stood on the 12th tee. Both Koepka and Ian Poulter had dumped their tee shots into Rae’s Creek in the group preceding the Molinari-Woods-Tony Finau pairing, with Finau becoming the fourth player in the final two groups to hit his tee shot on 12 into the water.
Woods safely put his tee shot on the green and made par to tie Molinari for the lead, and when both players birdied the 13th, they were tied at the top at 12-under with Xander Schauffele, who birdied holes 11, 13 and 14. Koepka, Cantlay, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson were all 11-under at the time, setting up what seemed to be a down-to-the-wire finish.
Molinari, who made only his second bogey of the tournament on the seventh hole Sunday, dropped out of contention when he double-bogeyed 15. An errant tee shot into the trees right of the 15th fairway forced him to lay up down the left side, and his 80-yard third shot clipped a tree branch and plummeted into the pond well short of the green. Following a birdie at the 17th, he wound up tied for fifth at 11-under after a disappointing final round of 74.
Cantlay briefly took the outright lead when he eagled the 15th to get to 12-under, but hit his tee shot well right onto the upper tier at 16, leading to a 3-putt bogey. He missed right again off the tee at 17 for another bogey and a 68 after being 6-under for the day after 15 holes. He tied for ninth at 10-under.
Schauffele also shot 68 Sunday after an up-and-down opening nine which consisted of four birdies, three bogeys and just two pars. But after birdies at 11, 12 and 14 gave him a share of the lead, he parred his last four holes to tie for second.
Koepka recovered from his watery double at the 11th with an eagle at 13, and almost added a second eagle at 15. He settled for a birdie to become part of a 5-way tie at 12-under that lasted until Woods birdied the hole minutes later and Molinari made double bogey. Koepka had excellent birdie chances at 17 and 18, but was unable to convert either of the two.
Johnson was the first player to post 12-under, but was never a serious factor until running off four birdies over his last six holes. He birdied 15, 16 and 17 in succession and was in birdie range at 18, but missed with a chance to put some pressure on Woods, who knew he needed only a bogey at 18 to win. Johnson’s closing 68 helped him regain the No. 1 spot in the World Rankings over Justin Rose, who surprisingly missed the cut.
Tying Molinari for fifth at 11-under were Jason Day, Webb Simpson and Finau. Day’s 67 matched Sunday’s low round and capped a painful week in which he tweaked his oft-injured back prior to the start of the second round. Despite having to receive treatment twice during the round, he shot 67 Friday to share the lead at the midway point with Molinari, Koepka, Louis Oosthuizen and Adam Scott at 7-under. But while most of the field was torching a defense-less Augusta National on Saturday, Day fell seven behind Molinari after a 73.
Simpson fired one of three 64s Saturday (Cantley and Finau had the other two), but made his first birdie Sunday at the 13th. He added two more for a 70 and a share of fifth.
Finau’s 64 Saturday got him into the final group Sunday, and he contended for most of the day before dumping his tee shot into the water on 12. He rebounded with birdies at 13, 15 and 16 for an even par round and a tie for fifth.
Joining Cantley in a tie for ninth at 10-under were Jon Rahm and Rickie Fowler, who shot 68 and 69 respectively in the final round.
Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson got to 10-under after going birdie-birdie-eagle on 13, 14 and 15, but bogeyed his last two holes for a 69. Also tying for 12th at 8-under were Justin Thomas, Matt Kuchar, Masters rookie Justin Harding and Poulter, who was very much on contention before going bogey-double bogey on 11 and 12.
Woods began the tournament with a 70, the same opening he shot in three of his four previous victories in Augusta. He trailed Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau, who shared the opening round lead at 66, by four shots before moving into contention with a second round 68, carding six birdies, only one of which came on a par 5.
After playing his first five holes Saturday in 1-over, Woods ran off consecutive birdies at 6, 7 and 8 and added back nine birdies on the familiar trio of 13, 15 and 16 for a 67 to get into the final pairing on Sunday.
Woods again got off to a shaky start Sunday, and was 1-over after six holes before hitting his approach to the par-4 seventh within a foot for a birdie. He reached the par-5 with eighth in two for another birdie but fell two behind Molinari when he drove well right on the 10th and had to pitch out from the trees for his third bogey of the day.
After another drive that went right on 11, Woods had an opening through the trees and hit an excellent approach to the green for an easy par. He played sensibly the rest of the way with three solid pars along with three birdies on the three vulnerable holes on Augusta National’s famous back nine.
Woods had been mostly absent from major championship leader boards until last summer, when he contended in both the British Open and PGA. He briefly held the lead on the front nine Sunday at Carnoustie, but was trampled on the back nine by a ruthlessly efficient Molinari, who went on to win while Tiger tied for sixth.
In the PGA at Bellerive, Woods fired a final round 64 to make a run at the lead, but Koepka did not wilt and held on for his third major victory in two years.
With his win Sunday, Woods turned the tables on both Molinari and Koepka after their 2018 triumphs over him, and will likely enter both the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black and the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach as the favorite, having won majors at both courses.
Woods needs only one win in any PGA Tour event to tie Sam Snead’s all-time victory mark at 82, and is within three majors of tying Jack Nicklaus at 18, a record that appeared safe until Tiger conclusively proved that at the age of 43 he still has plenty left in the tank.