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Mike Anthony: Tiger’s return to the top caps Masters to remember
Tiger Woods, left, getting the Green Jacket from Phil Mickelson, right, after winning the 2005 Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. - photo by Amy Sancetta

When Tiger Woods won the 2005 Masters tournament, it was hard to imagine there would ever be a time when he wasn’t in contention at Augusta. That win was his ninth major victory and began a stretch of four victories in a stretch of eight majors contested.

But, for the past decade, it was easy to wonder if he’d ever be in contention again as personal and physical problems kept Woods off the course far too often and rendered him ineffective in most majors when he was able to participate.

Everything came full circle Sunday afternoon at Augusta National.

Woods trailed for the first 12 holes, but as the top of the leaderboard swelled and the drama heightened, Woods — as he has done so many times before — was the only one who could stare down the pressure.

Tiger was the only player in the final group to avoid the infamous waters of Rae’s Creek on No. 12. He made birdies on each of the par 5s on the second nine, the second of which gave him the outright lead for the first time in the tournament.

And then, with several players still in contention and attempting a late charge, Tiger flipped the switch on his own personal time machine, briefly turning into the nearly unstoppable force from years ago. His tee shot on No. 16 judged the large slope in the green perfectly and nearly grazed the hole to set up an easy birdie and a two-stroke lead.

On No. 17, commentators speculated about Woods’ choice to hit driver instead of a safer tee shot with a 3-wood, but the second-guessing had barely gone out over the airwaves before Tiger unleashed one of his biggest drives of the day and stalked it down the fairway, wearing a stoic and determined gaze the whole way.

Up at the 18th green, thousands of patrons had heard cheers from farther down the course and they turned their eyes to the scoreboard. With no one able to birdie No. 18 to put the pressure on Woods, the updated scoreboard showing a two-stroke lead unleashed a roar that was the loudest of the week, the volume and emotion of it capable of being produced only by Tiger Woods.

There was still some work to do and Woods made bogey on No. 18, but the tournament was all but sealed when he chipped safely onto the green and just barely missed a par putt before tapping in for his fifth green jacket and 15th major championship.

Speaking in an interview less than an hour after clinching his April 14 win, Woods said it still hadn’t sunk in. But for the thousands surrounding the 18th green and likely millions more watching on television and reacting on social media, the gravity of the moment was immediate and cathartic.

Press members who have covered Woods throughout his career were hopeful for him throughout the week and were openly cheering his clutch shots down the final stretch. Fellow golfers — both young and old — stuck around the 18th green to bear personal witness to Tiger’s return to the top.

And then there was the Woods family.

Tiger and his father famously embraced after his first Masters victory in 1997. Woods also had one of his most public showings of emotion in 2006 after the death of his father when he discussed not having him there at the end of his Open Championship victory.

The full scope of the major drought came when a new family member made an appearance behind the 18th green. Tiger’s son, Charlie, raced into Tiger’s arms for a celebratory hug. Charlie was born in 2009, eight months after Tiger’s 2008 U.S. Open victory — his final major win until Sunday.

Mike Anthony is sports editor for the Statesboro Herald, a Morris Multimedia property in Statesboro.