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Tiger’s fifth Masters triumph, a scene unlike any other

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tucked between the men’s locker room and the grill at Augusta National is an anteroom. It’s predictably appointed and posh, with a flatscreen TV in a corner, fireplace adjacent to a large window that overlooks the iconic course and an assortment of leather chairs.

It’s normally a serene place – no phones, no connection to the outside world, no stress. But this was far from normal or serene.

The final hours of every major are always tense, but on this particular Sunday – with a storm approaching – the strain was as evident.

Amid the chaos of the anteroom, Tiger Woods’ longtime agent, Mark Steinberg, paced nervously, darting between a scoring computer in the grill and the TV next to the fireplace. Woods, some 11 years removed from his last major moment, was in the hunt at the place that has defined his career.

As Woods stepped on the 12th tee, trailing Francesco Molinari by two strokes, there was a sense that time was running out. Even in threesomes, things move fast on the back nine on Sundays at Augusta National, and Molinari had played perfectly mundane golf until that moment. But then Molinari’s 8-iron into the 12th green hopelessly faded into a bank and tumbled into Rae’s Creek. Woods made par and Molinari made double bogey for a two-shot swing and an all-square match.

On the next hole, Woods two-putted from 31 feet for birdie. The buzz throughout the clubhouse escalated.

“It’s getting dicey,” Jordan Spieth observed as he made his way to the grill.

Spieth wasn’t referring to the weather warning scrolling across the bottom of the television broadcast but rather the five-way tie for the lead (Woods, Molinari, Xander Schauffele, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson).

Across the grill at a corner table sat Woods’ mother, Kultida; Woods’ two children, Charlie and Sam; and Rob McNamara, a vice president with TGR Ventures and Woods’ weekly confidant on the PGA Tour. Nearby is a glass case with recessed lighting. Inside is a club from each Masters champion, including Woods’ driver from his 1997 victory.

The entire scene, from the locker room to the grill, was a microcosm of the larger collective, with each person perched on the edge of their seats, from Augusta National members to Masters participants, anxiously awaiting an outcome that didn’t seem that realistic as recently as 12 months ago.

From 238 yards, Woods hit a towering 8- iron to 44 feet for a two-putt birdie and the solo lead.

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Charles Howell III, who turned pro in 2000 and has seen the best and worst of Woods, paused in the locker room following a final-round 69 and gazed at a TV.

“To see the red shirt on the back nine at the Masters,” Howell marveled, “look at that leaderboard. It’s impressive.”

Jon Rahm stopped on his way to the player parking lot to watch Woods’ tee shot at No. 16. Rahm had nearly made a hole-in-one on Sunday at the 16th, and he studied Woods’ 8-iron shot carefully as it caught the hill right of the pin and trickled toward the hole.

“Oh my God, oh my God. It’s going in,” Justin Thomas said, bracing himself.

Woods’ tee shot didn’t drop for the day’s third ace on the 16th, but it did set up a tap-in birdie for a two-stroke lead.

Thomas explained to the bartender that he did, in fact, make a hole-in-one at No. 16 and opened a tab ... for the entire room. The scene quickly became a frenzy.

A cut driver down the middle of the 17th hole for Woods sent murmurs across the room. Thomas lingered and slumped into a leather chair to watch his South Florida neighbor make history.

Woods’ approach shot at the 17th hole never left the flag, setting up a 9-foot birdie attempt. Rickie Fowler arrived fresh off a closing 69 and another top-10 finish at a major, and leaned into the bar. The bartender informed him that Thomas was buying.

“Perfect,” he said, with a smile.

A par at No. 17 assured Woods a two-stroke cushion to come up the last. His drive at the 18th hole, a drive he’s hit hundreds of times, just trickled into the right rough.

McNamara, who was nursing an iced tea, rose to his feet as a surreal hush fell over the room. For so long, so many had doubted whether Woods could break through the Grand Slam ceiling after so many years of competitive irrelevance and injury.

There was no protocol for this. Only Jack Nicklaus’ victory at the 1986 Masters can compare, and even that didn’t hold the historical relevance that Woods now faced.

When the Golden Bear won his 18th major, he was the bar. There were no finish lines, no one to compare or compete with, at least historically. But for Woods, “catching Jack” has been a constant albatross. Fairly or not, his career will always be compared with Nicklaus’, and after Woods spent more than a decade mired at 14 majors, the significance seemed beyond the room’s ability to process.

Woods’ approach at the 18th hole came up short of the green and he chipped to 14 feet. There was applause, a fist pump from McNamara and rowdy cheers fueled by Thomas’ generosity. Woods’ entourage headed for the door and the 150-yard walk to the 18th green for a celebration that, until Sunday, seemed wildly optimistic to many.

Woods’ par putt at the last slipped by. “Nice putter flip,” quipped Keith Mitchell.

As Woods tapped in, a light applause spread across the rooms. This will take some time to sink in.

“I saw a light at the end of the tunnel,” Fowler said. “I saw something like this that could potentially happen, but the 15th major was always going to be the hardest one.”

Thomas agreed: “Whether he admits it or not, this one was one of the most special.”

The room emptied to watch Woods climb the hill to the clubhouse.

Woods’ caddie Joe LaCava escaped to the champions parking lot and leaned against his boss’ black Mercedes SUV, the flagstick and flag from the 18th green tucked between the seats.

“I never dismissed his chances of winning,” he said with a grin.

Back in the grill, a crowd gathered under a TV to watch the green-jacket presentation in Butler Cabin. The staff had already stacked all of the chairs and tables, and the vacuum has been brought out.

The party is over for now, but everything else feels like it’s just beginning.