PGA: Masters Tournament - Final Round

Tiger Woods celebrates after making a putt on the 18th green to win the Masters on Sunday, April 14, 2019.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods plays golf with his hat on so we don’t see his balding head, meaning many found it easy on Sunday to mistake this year’s 43-year-old Masters champion — the once and current king of golf’s most glowing moment — for the elegant 21-year-old who won his first green jacket here 22 years and one day earlier.

Nothing about Woods — not his fit, superathlete appearance, nor his fierce focus perfectly matched to his utter calm, nor his powerhouse play — betrayed the reality of what the world was watching. If we were not told that Woods’ one-shot victory in the 83rd Masters to claim his 15th major championship was taking place at this very moment, we might have believed we were looking at tape from the early 2000s. And, caught in our own time warp of a fantasy, we might even say: “Tiger’s not just back. He still looks like he’s in his prime.”

Of course, that is not only false, it is the absolute opposite of the truth — which is what made this day so superb for sports and so deeply gratifying for Woods. The young Woods, fist-pumping in victory but icy in private, will be remembered with awe. This old Woods, with rings of pain like those circles inside the oak trees here, will be recalled with deep affection and a steadily increasing regard.

Everyone adapts, endures and sometimes even changes for the better in the face of a lifetime’s physical pain, self-inflicted failures or embarrassments. Few great, rich, famous athletes looked less touched by that harsh side of life than Woods did 11 years ago. Since then, few could match him for injury and a self-doubt that became so deep that, at the Masters Champions Dinner two years ago, he conceded to his peers, “I’m done.”

Luckily for us all, when Woods’ last tap-in bogey putt dropped in the hole Sunday, Tiger’s hat finally came off. And so did the lid that he has kept on his emotions for almost all of his career. The man with the yacht named “Privacy” flipped the switch and, finally, invited the whole world into his heart.

For minutes, he seemed intent on hugging every person on the property. He lifted his son, Charlie, hat on backward, into his arms. He hugged his daughter, Sam, who now comes up to his shoulder, for the longest, warmest eyes-closed time. His mother, Tilda, now silver-haired, got squeezes. For years, when asked what kept him centered during his various troubles, he always said, “My kids.”

When he had run out of caddies and scorers to hand-pump and high-five, when he screamed “Yeah!” with his eyes squeezed shut and his mouth as wide as possible, Woods suddenly noticed a line of his fellow pros waiting for him. Once, Woods had few close friends on the tour. Now, he had a receiving line of hugs.

“I don’t know if there are words. I’m a little hoarse,” Woods said afterward, a bit sheepishly. “After the last putt went in, I don’t really know what I did.”

Don’t worry; it was all better than good.

“To have my kids here, it’s come full circle. When I won the first time here, I hugged my dad. It’s overwhelming because of everything that’s transpired,” Woods added. “I’m so glad that Charlie and Sam could see me win another major. They were there at the British Open last year when I had the lead on that back nine and made a few mistakes, cost myself a chance. I wasn’t going to let that happen to them twice. . . . They only know that golf caused me a lot of pain. They’d see me swing a club and end up on the ground. Now we’re giving them some different memories.”

Woods’ 14 other major triumphs were surrounded by awe. This one was surrounded by affection.

Some do not find the biblical parable of the prodigal son to be the work of an entirely credible deity; the prodigal son returns to a feast of fatted calf, while the diligent good son gets McNuggets. By similar logic, some who watched Woods win will not grasp why golf’s prodigal has been welcomed back into the fold with such open arms. Perhaps they have little faith that people can change or learn from their humbling experiences. The roars here probably reflect the overall popular vote.

The thousands at the Masters, and the millions watching, will never feel Woods’ golf swing or have his genius sense of touch or his imagination. But we have little problem imagining his personal, psychological and physical pain.

Woods said he “had serious doubts” about playing competitively again. “I could barely walk. I couldn’t sit. Couldn’t lay down. “Luckily I had the procedure (a fusion) on my back, which gave me a chance to have a normal life.”

What happened next has amazed him, and then everybody else, for the past 18 months.

“All of a sudden, I could actually swing a golf club again,” he said. “I felt I could somehow piece this together, that I still had the hands to do it. The body’s not the same, but I still have good hands.”

For seven months, ever since Woods won the Tour Championship in September to end a five-year PGA Tour drought, the sports world has grappled with one question: If Woods could win a major championship after going 11 years and 42 majors without one, would that be the greatest comeback in sports?

Yes, of course it is.

Why? Since last year, this Greatest Comeback debate has arisen everywhere that sports media types — a nasty bunch — congregate. We make our cases for something, anything, that would beat a Tiger win in a major. With respect for everybody who gets mentioned, we’ve all given up. Ben Hogan coming back to win majors after almost dying when his car was crushed by a bus is the only competition. But Woods checks boxes for misery and self-inflicted embarrassment that nobody knew existed.

Now, let the accolades roll in. Jack Nicklaus sent a text: “A big well-done for Tiger. I am so happy for him and for the game of golf. This is just fantastic.”

Instead of “greatest comeback ever,” we now have a different and almost ridiculous question: Will Woods enter a 40-something renaissance and challenge Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors?

After the way Woods won his fifth Masters, that’s not impossible. His command of himself and his ball’s flight, his sense of what the leader board was telling him and, most important, his ability to avoid even a single dangerous, win-killing mistake — one fatal splash — spoke to a champion who was not simply summoning one magical, lucky week. Rather, this was a player whose polished but merely normal game could churn out 13 under par at Augusta National.

“There were so many guys who had a chance to win. You couldn’t have had more drama. Now I know why I’m balding. This stuff is hard,” Woods said. Then, for the only time, he allowed himself to brag. “I hit some of the best shots on that back nine today,” he said. “I felt like I just flushed it coming home.”

Despite his mere one-shot margin, Woods had this Masters by the throat when he reached the par-5 15th in two and made birdie, then hit a trademark show-it-forever iron shot that sucked back toward the hole at the par-3 16th, almost kissed the stick and ended up two feet away for birdie and a two-shot lead.

As that Masters-icing shot trickled back toward gimme-birdie range, Tiger begged with a phrase, eight times, “Come on . . . come on . . . come on.”

That is what many in golf have been imploring for years: “Come on, Tiger. Come back.” But how often does the prodigal return? Now, Woods and his game are well and truly found. And the golf world will tingle with new energy for years.

Beyond that, the imagination strains. We will wait many a year, or perhaps even measure it in generations, before sports sees another lightning bolt, that shocks us from head to toe, like this electrifying day at the Masters.