Tiger Woods stormed to a blockbusting Masters victory on one of the most dramatic, and earliest, finishes in Augusta National history.
With the Green Jacket looking destined to end up on the shoulders of Francesco Molinari with seven holes remaining, the Italian faltered down the stretch and found water at 12 and 15, while Woods vaulted into a two-shot lead with three birdies in four holes from the 13th.
And with challenges from the likes of Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele, and Brooks Koepka coming up just short towards the end of a remarkable back nine, Woods held it together and completed a two-under 70, a winning score of 13 under par which secured his fifth Masters title, his first in 14 years, and his first major since the 2008 US Open.
The first half of the final round was a war of attrition among the final threeball, and Molinari prompted memories of his super Sunday performance at Carnoustie last July as he kept finding ways to scramble pars while not being quite on top of his long game.
The seemingly-unflappable Ryder Cup record-breaker went long with an adrenaline-fuelled approach to the first, pitched to 12 feet and calmly rolled in the putt for an opening four, although the efficiency from the 10-foot range suffered a lapse on the second as he missed a good chance for birdie.
Woods then holed from eight feet for birdie at the third, but he gave it straight back when he came up short at the 240-yard fourth, while Molinari enjoyed the luxury of two cast-iron pars which restored his two-shot advantage, and the Italian nailed another nerveless par putt on the fifth green as Woods three-jabbed to bogey the hole for the fourth straight day – a first in his career.
Molinari produced another great escape at the sixth, but his remarkable run of 49 holes without a bogey ended after a poor drive at the seventh, where Woods clipped a wedge to a couple of inches and tapped in to pull within one of the leader.
They traded birdies at the eighth, and Woods produced the lag putt of the tournament at the ninth from 70 feet down the slope, while Molinari rattled in a six-footer for par to stay one clear at the turn. And then, the old adage that the Masters does not start until the back-nine on Sunday rang true.
Molinari’s metronomic radar suddenly deserted him after pars at 10 and 11, finding water at 12, then again at 15 to end his hopes. Patrick Cantlay, Schauffele, and Johnson all enjoyed spells in the lead; Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler, and Justin Thomas all threatened, with Thomas emulating Bryson DeChambeau’s ace at 16.
But amid all the chopping and changing at the top of the leaderboard, Woods calmly went about his business with a controlled performance reminiscent of his heyday, ignoring the plights of his playing partners to hit the 13th and 15th greens in two to set up routine two-putt birdies, and he suddenly found himself two clear of the field at 16.
His birdie two was nowhere near as dramatic as his sensational chip-in from the back of the green 14 years ago, but a precise iron to two feet was just as significant, and the putt was never in doubt.
Woods’ task over the last two holes was made a little easier when, up ahead, neither Johnson, Schauffele, or Koepka were able to find the birdies on 18 they needed to apply the appropriate pressure, and the iconic red shirt was cleared for a procession to the finish line.
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He could have extended his lead to three had he not been understandably tentative with a 12-foot birdie putt on the penultimate green, and he then flirted with the pines to the right of the 18th fairway before blocking his second and ending up 30 yards short and right of the green.
But he had more than enough in hand with the knowledge that a bogey would be good enough to seal the deal, and that was how the finale transpired as he pitched to 15 feet, grazed the lip with his par putt, and tapped in to record one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history.
Molinari, meanwhile, was left to count the cost of his two double-bogeys after the turn – the first when he produced almost a carbon-copy of Jordan Spieth’s first attempt to reach the 12th green in 2016, and he was unable to get up and down after dropping short and left of Rae’s Creek.
And, after a par at 14, he carved his drive into the trees to the right of the 15th fairway, over-hit his lay-up a touch, and then clipped a tree branch with his third which barely got halfway over the water, and he almost chunked his third into the drink as well before eventually getting up-and-down from the front bank for an ugly seven.
A birdie at 17 was scant consolation as Molinari trailed in with a 74 to close on 11 under and in a share of fifth, while Johnson, Schauffele, and Koepka were also left to ponder what might have been after finishing as joint runners-up.
Johnson looked out of the running with six to play before he suddenly reeled off four birdies in five holes to post a 68 and the initial clubhouse target of 12 under, while Koepka’s bid for a fourth major also came up a shot short after a rollercoaster inward run in which he found water at the 12th before bouncing back with an eagle at the next.
Another birdie followed at 15, but he could not do better than par over the last three holes and had to be content with a 70, while Schauffele’s run of five birdies in seven holes around the turn swept him to the top of the leaderboard on 12 under, but his failure to birdie the long 15th would ultimately prove pivotal.
Jason Day earned his fourth top-10 finish at Augusta thanks to a closing 67 which lifted him alongside Molinari, Webb Simpson (70), and Tony Finau (72) on 11 under, while Ian Poulter ended the 83rd Masters as the leading British challenger after seeing his title hopes vanish on 11 and 12.
Birdies at the sixth and seventh had elevated the Englishman into the fringes of contention on 10 under, but he bogeyed 11 and was another to donate a ball to the creek at 12, where he double-bogeyed before going onto complete a 73 and finish in a tie for 12th on eight under par.
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