Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 14, 2019

With Help From Augusta’s 12th, Woods Puts Golf On Page One

Each of the eighteen holes at Augusta National Golf Club is named after a flowering shrub or tree, examples of which can be found along its length. It’s a reminder that the property that is now home to one of the most famous golf courses in the world was once the site of Fruitland Nursery. The shortest hole on the course, which played to just 158 yards for Sunday’s final round of this year’s Masters, is called Golden Bell, for the species of forsythia that are among the plants serving as a backdrop to the putting surface, though by the time of this year’s tournament the yellow blooms that herald spring in much of the country had given way to green leaves.

Yet for all the power that modern professional golfers regularly display, for all their 300-plus yard drives and iron shots soaring into the sky, the little 12th hole, down in the lowest corner of the course, has been a graveyard to major championship hopes over the years. In 1996 Greg Norman began the final round with a six shot lead over Nick Faldo. Through the first eight holes the Englishman chipped away at the Australian’s margin, cutting it in half. Then Norman made three straight bogeys starting on the 9th, and the pair came to the 12th tee all even at 9-under par. By the time they walked to the 13th tee Faldo was two clear after Norman dumped his tee shot into Rae’s Creek, leading to a double-bogey. Two decades later defending champion Jordan Spieth played a magnificent front nine on the tournament’s final day, turning a one shot overnight lead into a five stroke margin at the turn. But after bogeys at the 10th and 11th, Spieth put not one but two balls into the water at the 12th, gifting the lead and eventually the tournament to England’s Danny Willett.

Once again on Sunday, the shortest hole at Augusta National played an outsized role in the outcome of the year’s first men’s major. A threatening afternoon forecast caused tournament officials to move up tee times to early morning and send the players off both tees in groups of three, rather than the traditional weekend twosomes. The six golfers in the final two groups began play tightly bunched within four shots of 54-hole leader Francisco Molinari’s 13-under total. As the penultimate grouping of Webb Simpson, Brooks Koepka and Ian Poulter prepared to hit their tee shots on the 12th, the final threesome of Molinari, Tiger Woods and Tony Finau came down the 11th fairway. Simpson, who started the round four behind, had lost a further shot to Molinari, but Woods and Koepka were still just two back, Finau three, and Poulter four, as he had started.

Simpson, first to play but furthest behind the leader, safely cleared Rae’s Creek. Then, over the course of several minutes and in excruciating fashion, the 2019 Masters was decided. First Koepka, one of the longest hitters on tour, didn’t hit his 8-iron hard enough, and watched stoically as his ball landed on the bank in front of the green and rolled back into the creek. Then Poulter did exactly the same thing. Both made double-bogey. The huge crowd behind the tee had barely stopped buzzing when the final threesome stepped up and first Molinari, then Finau, reprised the earlier two shots with the same disastrous impact on their scorecards. A television viewer might have thought CBS was showing video of a single errant tee ball on an endless loop, so nearly identical were the four shots.

Perhaps this year’s Masters was really won on the 10th hole, where Woods made bogey. That gave the honor in the final threesome to Molinari, which meant that as Woods prepared to tee off on the 12th he had already seen the Italian, who outplayed Woods in the final round of last year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie, send his ball to its watery demise. Knowing that Molinari was going to make at least bogey and probably a double, Woods took no risks at the 12th, sending his own tee shot on the safest possible line away from the pin to the fat left side of the green. With a two-putt par Woods pulled into a tie for the lead, the only player among the last five to play the 12th on Sunday with a score other than double-bogey.

There were still holes to play of course, but a generation of golf fans has grown up expecting but one result when the dominant player of his time moves to the top of the leader board late in the final round at a major. Even when there was a five-way tie at 12-under a few holes later, the expectation of most and certainly the hope of a multitude were that the golfer in the familiar red shirt would end the day alone at the top. A birdie on the par-5 15th moved Woods into that spot, and another at the 16th gave him some breathing room.

That he needed that cushion in the end, after a poor approach shot at the last didn’t come close to reaching the green takes nothing away from Woods’s triumph. Nor does his decision to play safe after that, chipping into the fat middle of the green rather than risking a heroic shot at the hole such as fans would have seen in his prime.

The win is not diminished by the reality that the Masters is the easiest of the four majors to win. It has the smallest field, just 87 players this year. That field always includes several amateurs and any past champion who wishes to tee it up, no matter his age, further reducing the number of starters with a genuine chance of capturing the title. It’s also the only major played on the same course every year, giving the advantage of familiarity to every veteran in the field.

Nor does how the tournament unfolded, a Masters as much lost by others as won by the winner, render the 15th major title on Woods’s professional resume any less important. The safe shot was the smart shot on the 12th after he saw so many other in the chase rue the risk of aiming at the flag. While a golfer controls only his own game, the final leader board at every tournament reflects a combination of brilliance and ineptitude, good luck and bad, by every player in the field over four days.

Woods is after all forty-three now, and fans have only lately learned the extent of the damage years of play did to his now surgically repaired back and knees. We now know that two years ago he seriously thought his days as a competitive golfer might be over. To come back from those depths to win again, as he did at the Tour Championship last fall, to contend in majors as he did at last year’s Open and PGA Championships, and now to capture a major after a gap of almost eleven years, is a comeback of historic proportions. It is not even diminished by the decision of CBS lead announcer Jim Nantz to laden the moment with treacle. Someone on the network’s production staff needed to whisper in Nantz’s earpiece that it was a great comeback, not the Second Coming.

The win means that Woods will be the betting favorite at the next two majors. The PGA Championship next month and June’s U.S. Open are being played at Bethpage Black and Pebble Beach, respectively, two courses where Woods has already proven his major bona fides. But among all sports gambling odds are particularly meaningless in golf, a game in which the outcome might turn, as was the case Sunday, on a poorly struck 8-iron by a player, or in this case several, other than the winner. But there is one bet that readers can take to the house. Within minutes of his final putt dropping, Tiger’s triumph was the lead story on the websites of the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and Fox News. You can bet that no other golfer could do that.

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