By Neil Leverett
- Tiger Woods seals remarkable fifth Masters win after thrilling Sunday afternoon at Augusta National, Georgia
- 43-year-old American wins his 15th major title, but his first in 11 years
- Chasing pack flounder, as Ian Poulter, Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari challenges come to watery end
AUGUSTA, GEORGIA – After Tiger Woods wins a remarkable fifth Green Jacket at Augusta National on a roller-coaster Sunday, what did we learn from the first golf major of 2019 ?
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Tiger roars again
It was a sight few golfing, nay, sporting fans across the board expected to see again: Tiger Woods winning another major crown, to add to his already glory-laden career of 14 wins across an iconic 22-year period. But this perhaps, was his most remarkable.
Coming out on top after a thrilling Sunday afternoon in Augusta, after the final round was brought forward due to the threat of weather later in the day, it was perhaps the perfect metaphor for Woods’ journey since his last major victory during the US Open at Torrey Pines in 2008, that the storms remained at bay for the American to power home down the back nine and slip on a fifth green jacket at the Butler Cabin.
The 43-year-old has been on somewhat of a resurgence in form since last year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie, the US PGA Championship last August and then his win in the Players’ Championship to win a first PGA Tour title in years at the back end of 2018.
Sunday saw his exhaustive, emotional and divisive journey back to the top come full circle, as Woods held on to win by a single shot over World number one Dustin Johnson, after bogeying the 18th hole. Few had seen such a explosion of emotion and joy from Woods as he won his fifth Masters title, and it is perhaps a sign of his personal relief that he can now compete with the very best once more after a such a lengthy period of despair.
Having experienced what some had described to almost unbearable pain for most hours of any day, fused spinal surgery saw his ability to simply pick up a golf club and swing again. But having won a major after such personal and public tribulations, Woods’ comeback in complete.
Woods could now challenge Nicklaus
Having returned to conquer Augusta again, Woods stands just three major titles from the Jack Nicklaus‘ 18 wins and Tiger would appear to be set fair for a more than decent chance to at the very least equal ‘The Golden Bear’.
Woods’ resurgence from seemingly nowhere began initially on the proving grounds of western Scotland at Carnoustie in July last year, and the remainder of this year includes three courses in particular which will suit the American down to a tee. As the US Open returns to Pebble Beach in June, Woods is set for a homecoming in his native state of California and was the scene of his win at the turn of the millennium.
Romping to a fifteen-shot win in 2000 – the biggest winning margin in the history of major championship golf – another shot at a fourth US Open title in favourable links surroundings, provide Woods with his best shot at back-to-back ‘big four’ wins since the very embryonic days of his career.
If Pebble Beach does not bring number 16, Royal Portrush could well supply a very good chance. Few expected a links course to re-instill the belief in Woods that the Tiger could indeed be a major player again, but Carnoustie proved such and though Portrush will be very much unchartered territory for many, a buoyant Woods could be hard to stop.
To complete what could become an extremely fruitful year, Bethpage in New York hosts the PGA Championship to close the year out. You guessed it, Woods won there in 2002. Nicklaus’ 18 major wins is still some way off, but on the back of his historic win in Augusta, 2019 might well push the Tiger toward further sporting greatness.
Amen Corner claims Molinari scalp
For Francesco Molinari, a final day’s play that promised so much on the first tee shortly before 9.30 on Sunday evolved simply into what might have been for the Italian. The reigning Open champion who conquered Carnoustie is such majestic yet ruthless fashion last summer was primed to win his second major in only his last three competitions, only for the famous Georgia course to claim another victim in its’ storied history.
Amen Corner in the past has been the graveyard of many of golf’s greats and Molinari became another notch on Augusta’s metaphorical bedpost. Approaching the 12th hole with a two-shot lead, a tentative Molinari’s 9-iron into the narrow green came up short and – to the horror of the watching 36-year-old – bounced of the bank and into a watery environ.
Going on to make a double-bogey five, Molinari then birdied to go back to -12, before the par 5 15th then ended his tilt with finality. The usually rock-steady Molinari was forced to leave his comfort and find an eagle but by now his composure had left him and a further double-bogey put and end to his challenge. Finishing tied for fourth on -10, having been the picture of consistency who had moved up through the field on days two and three, it was a case of what might have been for Molinari.
The Italian was typically philosophical on his Amen Corner nightmare however. As he told Golf Digest simply:
“It was just a bad execution. We picked the right shot and just didn’t hit it hard enough, simple as that.”
Poulter challenge fails; Watery end for Koepka
It was the same stretch of the National that ended of the challenge of two of the chasing pack, as Amen Corner again bared its’ teeth and confirmed a space in the annuls of sporting nightmare. Both Ian Poulter and Brooks Koepka were gunning for the lead before being violently veered of course by the jaws of the 12th hole.
As both men fell victim in almost mirrored circumstances to that of Molinari, their lack of real form coming into the first major of the year mattered little but in the end the duo cam up short. Koepka, as the reigning, defending and successive two-time US Open champion looked in ominous form before his watery mishap but still finished as runner-up to Woods on -12.
For Poulter, the week’s events will be of huge promise to the veteran Englishman. With again little from to speak of, the St. Albans man looks again to have picked up where he left off from a strong finish to 2018, not least another ruthless display in Paris at the Ryder Cup last September. Both men will undoubtedly be unbowed by their near miss indeed, will, like their two balls in Rae’s Creek be buoyed after another strong four days of competition.
McIlroy struggling with shackles of expectation
It is now five years since Rory McIlroy last won a major and the pressure is beginning to show on the Northern Irishman. For many of the golfing media, this could have been the year for McIlroy to complete the Grand Slam and finally win all four majors. But the wait will go on for another year at least.
Since winning the PGA Championship in 2014 at Valhalla, the now 29-year-old has yet to again claim a major golfing crown. The man who was for many favourite to claim the prized green threads at the end of the week however, McIlroy’s challenge faltered on during the first round a rarely flickered into life.
Consistency has been the Holywood native’s issue in recent years and particularly around the lush and verdant pastures of Augusta, McIlroy has never really come close to winning the final major in the collection that would stamp his place in sporting history. Indeed a fourth-placed finish is the best he has so far mustered four years ago when Jordan Spieth won the tournament wire-to-wire.
Approaching his thirties the Irishman is far from close to the end of the best playing days, but does not likely to end his barren spell and time soon. As a player who backswing has many drooling still, it is his putting game that continues to let down McIlroy, but that said also fails to consistently deliver on his approach to the dance floor. It is very possible 2019 could be something of a watershed for McIlroy – a moment he will be hoping to swing positively for him.
The 2019 US Open takes place at Pebble Beach, California, between 13-16 June
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