(CNN) — Tiger Woods clinched his fifth Masters and 15th major title to seal one of the greatest comeback stories in sport after overcoming career-threatening back problems.
The 43-year-old muscled his way through a tightly packed leaderboard to win by one shot at Augusta for his first major title in 11 years and first Masters win since 2005.
It completes a fairytale return for the most dominant player of his generation — and arguably the best ever — after enduring “dark times” through injury since 2014.
Woods underwent career-saving spine fusion surgery in 2017 and sealed an impressive comeback season last year with his first win for five years.
Sunday’s thrilling victory puts the former world No.1 just three majors behind the all-time record of Jack Nicklaus.
Only fellow American Nicklaus has won more Masters, with six. Woods also joins Nicklaus as the only player to have won the Masters in three different decades after he clinched his first as a 21-year-old in 1997.
“It’s overwhelming just because of what has transpired,” Woods said in the Green Jacket ceremony in the Butler Cabin.
“Last year I was very lucky to be playing again. At the previous Champions Dinner I was really struggling and missed a couple of years of not playing this great tournament and now I’m the champion. Twenty two years between wins, it’s a long time and it’s unreal for me to experience this. My Mom was here, she was there in 1997 as well. I’m just so happy and excited and I’m at a loss for words.”
Woods began the day two shots behind Italy’s Francesco Molinari, and rode the roller coaster of a gripping final round to first share the lead after the Italian found the water in front of the short 12th.
Two holes later five players were tied at the top, but Woods’ birdie on the long 15th took him clear on his own. Another birdie on the short 16th ignited thunderous roars which reverberated around the towering pines as Woods marched off with a two-shot lead and a thousand-yard stare in scenes reminiscent of his heyday.
Sporting a red mock turtleneck in a nod to his last win at Augusta in 2005, and chewing gum throughout, Woods maintained his focus to edge world No.2 Dustin Johnson, three-time major champion Brooks Koepka and another American Xander Schauffele.
When the winning putt dropped, Woods clenched his fist and punched the air to tumultuous applause, before walking off the 18th to embrace his mother Kutilda, children Sam and Charlie, girlfriend Erica Herman and members of his team. Woods’ father and mentor Earl died in May 2006.
“To have my kids there, it’s come full circle,” Woods added. “My Dad was there in 1997 and now I’m the Dad with two kids there.”
The celebrations lasted an eternity as the patrons chanted “Tiger, Tiger” around the 18th green before a beaming Woods whooped and high-fived his way to the scorer’s hut.
Woods’ bogey at the last gave him a round of 70 for his first major title when trailing going into the final day.
“It’s been an epic Sunday here at the Masters and a great day for golf, just one of the most amazing days in our history,” said Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley.
Woods changed golf forever when he clinched his first Masters by a record 12 shots in 1997. Because of him, players became fitter, prize money increased and interest in the game jumped significantly. He’s been golf’s heart, soul and chief needle mover ever since.
Woods may not have been to everyone’s liking over the years, perhaps from a combination of his unerring success in his early 2000s pomp, his single-minded pursuit of excellence, a frosty persona and later personal choices.
But life’s issues appear to have mellowed him of late and the remarkable reception he received at Augusta suggested the narrative of his back story gave the sporting achievement more resonance.
A raft of celebrities took to social media to congratulate Woods.
NBA star Steph Curry called it “the greatest comeback story in sports,” while tennis legend Serena Williams said she “was in tears” and said it was “greatness like no other.”
Nicklaus tweeted his praise, while even Barack Obama joined in.
In the build-up to the Masters Woods said he couldn’t have foreseen being stranded on 14 majors when he won his last, the US Open, in 2008. He was later diagnosed with a fractured leg and took the rest of the season off but from then on nothing was the same.
At the 2009 US PGA he led going into the final round but failed to seal the win for the first time in his major career, losing to South Korea’s YE Yang.
Later that year, news of his extra marital affairs broke and Woods’ golf and life took a downward spiral.
Woods fought his way back to world No.1 in 2013 but the back issues surfaced the following year.
Many wrote off his career as the injuries took their toll on his form, world ranking — he plunged to outside the top 1,000 — and quality of life.
He admits he struggled with everyday tasks such as getting out of bed, driving and taking his kids to school, and is widely reported to have confided at the pre-Masters Champions Dinner a couple of years ago: “I’m done.”
But after seeing a specialist in England, Woods underwent fusion surgery, his fourth back procedure, in the US. However, if things looked bleak from a playing point of view, Woods looked to have hit rock bottom when he was arrested on a driving under the influence charge in May 2017.
Found asleep at the wheel of his car at the side of a road in Palm Beach, Florida, pictures and dashcam video of a confused and disoriented Woods were flashed around the world.
He was later found to have five different drugs in his system, but Woods blamed the incident on the prescription painkillers he was taking for his back injuries. He pleaded guilty to reckless driving and was put on a diversion program, but from that nadir, Woods’ trajectory has reached sky high.
On doctor’s advice he made a tentative return to hitting golf balls at home in late August 2017, and returned to the circuit in 2018 with remarkable success,. He briefly led the Open at Carnoustie before finishing second to Koepka in the US PGA and winning the Tour Championship for his 80th PGA Tour title, just two behind the record of Sam Snead.
And now this.
“This will be up there with one of the hardest I’ve had to win because of what transpired over the last couple of years,” he added.
“it was just an amazing buzz out there, trying to figure out what was going on but to stay present and focused on what i was trying to do. I kind of liked it.”
Greatest ever already? Maybe.
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