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15 and 81

The cream of the professional golf world certainly rose to the top after the first round of the 2019 Masters.

The co-leaders after superb 6-under par 66’s were American stars Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka. For the cerebral 26-year old DeChambeau the last 12 months have been a coming out party as he has won 4 times on the PGA Tour in addition to the Omega Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour. The 26-year old Californian is on the verge of superstardom and winning a Green Jacket would certainly help him attain that status.

Status that Koepka already enjoys. The 28-year Floridian has won three of the last six Majors contested having captured the 2017 and 2018 U.S. Opens (becoming the first player since Curtis Strange to win back-to-back U.S. Opens) and the 2018 PGA Championship. Koepka has struggled with his form over Winter after trying to lose weight. He has lost 24 lbs. and admits that it has affected both his psyche and game but appears to be back on track.

One behind the two leaders was ageless Phil Mickelson who at 48 years of age is trying to become the oldest Major Champion in history.

A further shot behind at 4-under were England’s Ian Poulter and American Dustin Johnson (who is currently the #2 ranked player in the world but has spent much of the last two years at the top of the world rankings).

Another shot back at 3-under were the international quartet of Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Australian Adam Scott, American Kevin Kisner and Spain’s Jon Rahm.

At 2-under were 4-time champion Tiger Woods, and fellow Americans: Rickie Fowler, JB Holmes, Gary Woodland and Patton Kizzire. They were joined by Italy’s Francesco Molinari and Australians Cameron Smith and Jason Day, Canadian Corey Connors and Dane Lucas Bjerregaard.

It was a leaderboard for the ages.    

The second-best round on Firday was crafted by South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen who authored a mistake free 6-under par 66 to be one the five co-leaders at the end of the day at 7-under. The talented 36-year old won the 2010 Open Championship and also has been a runner-up in all four Majors.

Oosthuizen was joined at 7-under by four other players; Day and Scott, Koepka and Molinari who continues his brilliant form. It was the first time in history that five major champions were tied for the lead in a Major.

They led by one over Woods whose 4-under 68 put him at 6-under. The natural stadium that is created at Augusta National increases the volume level of the cheers for all the players but when Woods does something exciting it is deafening. Keeping company with Woods at 6-under was 25-year old American, Xander Schauffele whose flawless 65 was the best round of the day.

Tied with Woods and Schauffele were Johnson and Harding. A shot behind them at 5-under were Poulter and Rahm with an American quartet of Mickelson, Kizzire, Kuchar and Charles Howell III at 4-under.

A log-jam of 7 players were at 3-under including DeChambeau who could not maintain his opening round brilliance but who was still very much in the thick of the tournament. With DeChambeau were Aphibarnrat, Woodland, Fowler, Connors and Americans Justin Thomas and Tony Finau.

Such is the nature of Augusta though that positions can change dramatically in such a short time that players within 7 shots of the halfway lead, still have a very legitimate chance to become part of the story. So, superstars like Jordan Spieth at 1-under, two-time Champion Bubba Watson and Rory McIlroy  (who needs only the Masters to become only the sixth player in history to win all four Majors) at even par, remained contenders.       

Saturday greeted the players with perfect conditions and they took full advantage of an almost vulnerable Augusta.

American Patrick Cantlay had barely made the cut at 1-over par but his 8-under 64 on Saturday would vault him up the leaderboard to 7-under. He was matched a short time later by fellow American Webb Simpson whose 64 moved him to 9-under while a third 64 carded by Finau gave him the clubhouse lead at 11-under. 

Meanwhile, Woods was conjuring up the magic that we saw from him for so long and made 6 birdies over his final 12 holes to finish with a 67 on the day and in a tie with Finau at 11-under for the tournament.

But Molinari was more than up to these fervent challenges and bested Woods by one on the day with a 66 and a two-stroke advantage at 13-under, heading into Sunday’s’ final round. Since his breakthrough at the Open Championship last year https://www.birdgolf.com/bravo/ , Molinari has been playing the best golf of his career. Always a very good ball striker, putting and chipping have always been the Italian’s Achilles heel, but he has revamped his short game in the last two years and the results have been electric.    

Koepka played well and his 3-under 69 left him in 4th at 10-under, a stroke clear of Poulter and Simpson at 9-under. Harding, Schauffele, Oosthuizen, Kuchar and Johnson were at 8-under with Scott (whose putting is becoming painful to watch) and Fowler a shot further back at 7-under. Given the quality of these players, it would figure that one of them would be wearing the Green Jacket on Sunday.

The weather conditions for Sunday were forecast to be ominous in the afternoon so Augusta made the unprecedented decision to move the starting times to early Sunday morning in the hope that they would be able to complete play before the predicted storms.

As the players made their way through Sunday’s front 9 the winds began to quicken putting the gust into Augusta, and providing a much sterner test than the first three days.

With the players paired into threesomes (they normally are in twosomes for the last two rounds), Molinari was paired in the final group with Woods and Finau. The first time Woods and Molinari were in the same group at the Masters was in 2005, when Molinari was a caddie not a player. Molinari was caddying for his brother, Eduardo, who was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion while Woods would go on to claim his third Green Jacket.

None of the leaders made withering moves on the front-9 and basically maintained their positions with Molinari at 13-under with Woods one behind at 12-under and Finau and Koepka a shot further back at 11-under. Once again however the diabolical short 12th hole would prove a turning point as Poulter, Koepka, Finau and Molinari all hit their tee shots into the water that guards the green.

Molinari would make a double bogey to fall back to 11-under and was now in a 3-way tie for the lead with Woods and Schauffele.

Playing ahead of them, Watson and Day had made up ground and were a single shot behind at 10-under but the biggest move was Cantlay’s who after making an eagle-3 on the par 5 15th held the outright lead at 12-under. Moments later, Cantlay would have company in the lead when Schauffele birdied the 14th hole and Woods and Molinari made birdies on the par-5 13th to make a foursome at the top of the leaderboard.

A birdie on the 17th propelled a hard charging Johnson to 12-under and a birdie by Koepka on the 15th meant that there were now 5 players in the lead (Cantlay had fallen back after consecutive bogies on the 16th and 17th).

Molinari’s Masters would effectively end when he made a disastrous double-bogey on the 15th while Woods took the outright lead at 13-under with a birdie on the same hole. Woods then hit a sublime 8 iron on the par-3 16th to within two feet of the hole and when he converted his birdie and a two shot advantage, the tournament was his to win.

A bogey on the 18th hole would give Woods a 1-shot margin of victory over Koepka, Johnson and Schauffele and perhaps the greatest winners reception in the history of the game. As one, the euphoric patrons roared his name “Tiger, Tiger, Tiger”.

Waiting to embrace him by the 18th green were his son, Charlie, daughter Sam and his Mother Kultida and their exchanges spoke as loudly as the delirious crowd.

It was a moment that will be etched in the pantheon of the greatest moments in sports.     

This is Woods’ first Major since his triumph at the 2008 U.S. Open and a win many thought would never come. His journey proves that nobody is spared the hardships of this life but that if one perseveres and never loses the will to win, that you can achieve unimagined things.

This is the 81st win of Woods’ PGA Tour career which leaves him one short of Sam Snead’s all-time record of 82.

It is the 15th Major of his historic career which leaves him 3 short of Jack Nicklaus’s record 18. Whether or not he ties the Golden Bear is really irrelevant because he has overcome so much.

When Eldrick Tont Woods put on his fifth Green Jacket, there was a joy in him, that he may never have had before.    

“Tiger, Tiger, Tiger”.

In every conceivable way, this was a win for the ages.