Tiger Woods held his nerve on a wonderfully chaotic final day at Augusta National to win his 15th major title, and a first in 11 years, in the 83rd Masters.
Amid a dizzying series of twists and turns, Woods carded a closing 70 to finish 13 under par, one shot ahead of Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele and Brooks Koepka, the reigning US Open and US PGA champion.
Overnight leader Francesco Molinari was two clear with seven to play but dumped his tee shot on the 12th into Rae’s Creek and also double-bogeyed the 15th, the Open champion having to settle for a tie for fifth with Tony Finau, Webb Simpson and Jason Day.
It is the first time Woods has won a major when trailing after 54 holes and comes 3,954 days since he beat Rocco Mediate in a play-off for the 2008 US Open, despite a double stress fracture and knee injury which prompted season-ending surgery.
And it is just two years since he told Jack Nicklaus “I’m done” during the Champions Dinner at Augusta National, after which he flew straight to London to see the consultant who recommended he undergo what proved to be career-saving spinal fusion surgery.
With thunderstorms forecast to hit the course in mid-afternoon, tournament officials took the unprecedented decision to move the tee times forward by several hours, with players sent out in groups of three from both the first and 10th tees.
Molinari began the day with a two-shot lead over Woods and Finau and found himself three clear after six straight pars, but Woods closed the gap to a single shot with the aid of back-to-back birdies to set up a thrilling finale.
Woods had ridden his luck at times in his third round of 67 and finally paid the price for a wild drive on the 10th, the resulting bogey dropping him two behind Molinari, who saved par superbly after pulling his approach left of the green.
However, the wind was playing havoc on the daunting par-three 12th and Molinari, Koepka, Ian Poulter and Finau all dumped their tee shots into the water guarding the front of the green.
Sensing his opportunity, Woods played safely away from the pin and a somewhat nervy par, after leaving his birdie attempt five feet short, gave him a tie for the lead as Molinari could not get up and down following a penalty drop.
An amazing day then took another twist as Patrick Cantlay, who only made the halfway cut with a shot to spare, followed his third round of 64 with five birdies and an eagle on the 15th to briefly claim the lead, only to bogey the next two holes.
Birdies from Johnson and Koepka made it a five-way tie before Molinari’s mishap on the 15th, where Woods two-putted from long range for birdie to take the outright lead for the first time.
Woods was then inches away from the third hole-in-one of the day on the 16th and tapped in for birdie to double his lead, allowing him the luxury of a bogey on the last before the exuberant celebrations could begin as chants of ‘Tiger, Tiger’ reverberated around the 18th green.
“That will be the greatest scene in golf forvever,” said six-time major winner Nick Faldo, commentating for CBS. “We will never see anything as exhilarating as that.”
Three-time major winner Brooks Koepka hit back at criticism of his recent weight loss after firing a flawless 66 in the opening round of the 83rd Masters.
Koepka revealed on Tuesday that he underwent tests following the Players Championship and that he has not been in the gym in three weeks following an intense workout schedule and diet that left his energy sapped.
The 28-year-old said that was as a result of a diet that limited him to 1,800 calories a day, with rumours circulating that it was undertaken in advance of a magazine photoshoot.
Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee was strongly critical, saying: “For him to change his body and his body chemistry for vanity reasons for a vanity shoot is the most reckless self-sabotage that I have ever seen of an athlete in his prime.”
Koepka has not confirmed the reason for the diet but said: “Well, I lift all the time. I lift too many weights and I’m too big to play golf. And then when I lose weight, I’m too small. So, I don’t know. I don’t know what to say.
“Listen, I’m going to make me happy. I don’t care what anybody else says. I’m doing it for me and obviously it seems to work.”
Koepka shares the lead with compatriot Bryson DeChambeau and is chasing a remarkable fourth major title in seven starts after following back-to-back wins in the US Open with victory in the 2018 US PGA.
“I’m super aggressive at a normal event and that kind of backfires sometimes,” Koepka said. “But at a major I kind of let things brush off my back a little bit easier.
“In a normal event that three-putt (for par) on eight really would have drove me nuts. I would have been sitting there for probably five minutes trying to figure out what I did wrong. But I just let things go a lot easier in a major.”
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Rory McIlroy’s “unbelievable golf” will make him tough to beat in the 83rd Masters according to Ryder Cup team-mate Jon Rahm.
McIlroy needs to win a first green jacket at Augusta National to complete the career grand slam, but comes into the week in brilliant form after following five straight top-six finishes with victory in the Players Championship.
Rahm himself has six top-10 finishes from nine events in 2019 and finished one place above McIlroy in last year’s Masters, but concedes the Northern Irishman is the man he would back to win if push came to shove.
“Who am I going to say besides me?” Rahm said with a smile. “I like to bet on myself. But that’s just being confident. It’s tough to choose in a sport like golf, especially in this event.
“When you have winners from Tiger (Woods) to Seve (Ballesteros) to Mike Weir to Phil (Mickelson) to Jordan (Spieth) to Ben Hogan, you have vastly different players and ways of playing the game and that’s the beauty about it.
“There’s not one way to play this golf course. There’s so many different ways to do it and there’s so many different things that you can do right. It’s one of those weeks where anybody can win at any given point.
“Now, if we are going based on how people are playing and forces to be reckoned with you always have to count Tiger and Phil. That’s seven green jackets between the two of them, it’s heavy. Bubba Watson, always somebody to count.
“But Rory is playing unbelievable golf. I mean, he’s playing the best golf he’s played in a long time and I think he’s one of the only ones who has more top 10s than I do this year, including the win at The Players.
“That’s really good golf and it seems like his putting has been lot better. If Rory is hitting the ball the way he is, and he putts good, he’s tough to beat.
“You can have people show up out of nowhere and win. It’s hard to bet but if I had to put all of it on one person that’s not myself, probably go with Rory. This is who I see right now playing the best and somebody who fits really good to this golf course.”