Rory Jiwani goes back to 2005 for his second instalment of classic Masters tournaments ahead of this week’s event. The winner for the fourth time, one Tiger Woods.
Ahead of the 2005 Masters, Eldrick Tont Woods was experiencing the longest major title drought of his career since he ran away with the Green Jacket in 1997.
The reason? Probably the contents of his golf bag. And his split with swing guru Butch Harmon.
Woods had used Titleist clubs since turning pro in 1996. But his main sponsors Nike, then relative newcomers in the field of golf club design, were working furiously to provide him with the perfect tools.
At the start of 2002, he switched to a Nike driver with mixed results. Fortunately, the rest of Woods’ game was in such good order that it did not matter as he claimed a third Masters title and a second US Open, his eighth major triumph.
But late in 2002, Woods made the move to Nike irons. A few months later, he stunned the golfing world by dumping Harmon who had advised him since 1993.
Despite being the dominant player of his era, Woods was still unhappy with his swing while Harmon was in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” camp. One swing flaw was a regular hyper-extension to his left knee which was already weak due to childhood injuries. It was operated on just before Christmas 2002.
Amazingly, he won three of his first four tournaments back from surgery. But Woods was determined to change his swing and Harmon had to go.
While he continued to win, Woods was uncompetitive at majors. In 2003 and 2004 he finished in the top-10 just twice in majors, both at the Open Championship.
It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly why there was such a discrepancy, but the big four are designed to be severe tests. Missing fairways and greens will hurt you more at a major than anywhere else. So any unease Woods may have had with his clubs, and his swing, was more likely to show up.
At the same time, the opposition was taking advantage of advances in club technology especially when it came to driving distance. Woods’ rivals were catching up to him, and some even passing him, off the tee. Phil Mickelson claimed Woods was “the only player who is good enough to overcome the equipment he’s stuck with”, a view which unsurprisingly went down like a cup of cold sick in Nike HQ.
There is also the possibility Woods’ private life was distracting him from on-course matters. He and Elin Nordegren were engaged in November 2003, and wed 11 months later.
In 2004, Woods had a dismal season by his standards. He brought in Hank Haney to replace the gap left by Harmon but won just once. And in September, Vijay Singh pushed him off the top of the world rankings for the first time in five years.
With his father Earl seriously ill, Woods’ world was turbulent to say the least. He had already won twice in 2005 before coming to Augusta, but he was not the awe-inspiring behemoth that held all four majors in 2001. This Tiger looked decidedly human.
Woods struggled after heavy rain delayed play on the Thursday. On 13, the fourth hole of his opening round, he lined up an eagle putt from 50 feet… and sent it past the hole, off the back of the green, and into Rae’s Creek.
Luck was against him too. On the 1st, his wedge approach rebounded off the pin into the bunker. Another bogey followed as he ended the day on one-over through 12 holes. He dropped another stroke on Friday morning for a round of 74 leaving him seven shots behind leader Chris DiMarco.
More rain saw round two run into Saturday, but Woods was back. Despite hitting just six of 14 fairways, the three-time champion went round in 66 to move into third place on four-under, two behind Thomas Bjorn. He still had six shots to make up on DiMarco who carded his second consecutive 67.
The protagonists reached the turn of the third round on Saturday, and Woods managed to cut the lead to four thanks to three closing birdies in a 31-shot front nine. DiMarco went out in 33 to reach 13-under, but the tournament was turned on its head on Sunday morning.
On his first hole of the day, the 10th, DiMarco took a penalty drop which led to a double bogey. Woods had already birdied the hole and then picked up shots on the next three for seven consecutive birdies on the card. He gave two back coming in but DiMarco toiled to a 41-stroke back nine to go into the final round on eight-under, three behind his fellow American.
On eight previous occasions, Woods had converted a lead or a share of the lead into a major victory. Surely number nine would be a formality?
It looked so when Woods birdied the first. But DiMarco, who had lost out in a play-off to Vijay Singh in the preceding major, the 2004 PGA Championship, rose to the occasion.
Both men birdied the second before DiMarco, in the manner of his unusual putting grip, clawed his way back into contention from four shots back. A Woods bogey at the 5th left DiMarco three behind and the pair birdied 9 to go out in matching 34s.
Then DiMarco got to work. A monster birdie putt on 11 reduced the gap to two. And then a beauty of an approach to 14 set up another birdie to pile the pressure on the hot favourite.
Pars on 15 left Woods one up with three to play. And then came the moment of the tournament, even if it did not turn out to be the decisive one.
DiMarco had the advantage off the tee at the short 16th, finding the heart of the green. Woods pulled his tee-shot into the fringe, just in front of the cut to the rough, leaving him a tricky up-and-down.
No down was required.
Woods landed the ball just on the green and it skipped on to a slope 20 feet left of the pin. It rolled unerringly towards the hole, stopped on the lip for two seconds, before dropping in for a miraculous birdie. Even his playing partner had to say “Nice shot” in the heat of battle.
DiMarco missed his birdie putt to leave Woods two up with two to play, and that should have been that.
The Woods of 2001 would have closed it out without a second thought. But the Woods of 2005 bore a greater resemblance to Seve Ballesteros than to the clinical Tiger of old.
A poor drive on 17 and a fluffed pitch let one shot slip. And then he found the greenside bunker at 18 to give DiMarco a sniff.
Woods had to aim 30 feet wide of the cup from the sand, and ended up 12 feet away. DiMarco came agonisingly close to chipping in from just off the green, the ball hitting the pin but not dropping.
That meant Woods had a chance to win it, but his putter remained as cold as it had for the rest of the back nine. DiMarco nervelessly holed out for par, and the pair walked back to the 18th tee.
DiMarco left himself a chip very similar to the one he had come so close to holing 20 minutes earlier. This time he was just off target but it was a tap-in for par.
Woods had played a peach of an iron, minus backspin, into Sandy Lyle 1988 territory. It was a rare occasion that the superstar had hit two solid shots off the tee into birdie range. And just like Lyle, he knocked in the uphill putt to clinch victory.
For DiMarco, it was a second near-miss in a major and there was one more to come – the 2006 Open where he again ran into Woods who retained the Claret Jug at Hoylake without using his driver once.
But that 2005 Masters triumph was the start of the second coming of Tiger Woods. He won his second Open title that year and then four more majors over the next three years. He also reclaimed the world number one spot and stayed there for 281 weeks, surpassing his own previous record.
The last of his 14 majors came at the 2008 US Open, beating Rocco Mediate on the first extra hole after 18 play-off holes on the Monday had failed to separate them. The win was all the more remarkable given Woods’ obvious discomfort with that troublesome left knee which was operated on two days later.
Plenty has happened since, but Woods’ resurgence has been the story of the season so far. And if he were to win at Augusta this week, it would be the most popular victory since Jack Nicklaus claimed his sixth Green Jacket in 1986 at the age of 46.
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