by Jim SLATER
AUGUSTA, United States (AFP) — Tiger Woods completed an epic “full circle” comeback from career-threatening injury and scandal by winning the 83rd Masters on Sunday, capturing his 15th major title with an unprecedented back-nine rally.
Ending an 11-year major drought, the 43-year-old American superstar — who underwent spinal fusion surgery in 2017 due to chronic back pain — seized his first major title since the 2008 US Open.
“It’s overwhelming just because of what has transpired,” Woods said. “I could barely walk. Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t walk. Couldn’t do anything.
“To have the opportunity to come back, it’s one of the biggest wins I’ve ever had for sure.”
Winning a fifth Masters title, and his first since 2005, cemented a fairytale comeback to the pinnacle of golf for Woods, whose career imploded after a 2009 sex scandal and nagging knee and back injuries.
“It’s overwhelming just because of what has transpired,” Wood said. “I was just lucky to be playing again.”
With fans chanting his name, an emotional Woods walked off the 18th green and hugged his mother Kultida, daughter Sam and son Charlie just as he had embraced his late father Earl there after his first major victory at the 1997 Masters.
“It has come full circle,” Woods said. “This tournament has meant so much to me and to have everyone here means so much to me and my family.
“Now to be the champion — 22 years between wins is a long time — it’s unreal for me to experience this. I just couldn’t be more happy, more excited. I’m just kind of at a loss for words.”
Racing to finish before an oncoming thunderstorm, players created their own electric atmosphere, spectators roaring repeatedly for sensational shotmaking on one of golf’s iconic stages.
Woods fired a final-round two-under par 70 to finish on 13-under 275 for a one-shot victory to capture a $2.07 million (1.82 million euros) top prize and the green jacket symbolizing Masters supremacy.
“We couldn’t be happier,” Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley told Woods. “You’ve made history once again at Augusta National.”
An all-American trio of three-time major winner Brooks Koepka, world number two Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele shared second on 276.
“I don’t know if there are words — I’m sure he’s ecstatic about it,” Koepka said. “To have the injuries and come back and do what he has done, it has been tremendous to watch.”
Jack says ‘Well done’
It was the fifth Masters title for Woods, his first since 2005, and it moved him three shy of the all-time record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus.
“A big well done from me to Tiger,” Nicklaus told telecaster CBS. “I’m so happy for him and for the game of golf this is so fantastic.”
The triumph was the first major victory for Woods when he did not lead after 54 holes, having started the day two adrift of reigning British Open champion Francesco Molinari.
Woods served notice he had returned to form by contending last year at the British Open and PGA before snapping a five-year title drought by capturing the Tour Championship.
Woods grabbed the lone lead on a jam-packed leaderboard with a tap-in birdie at the par-5 15th, a four-foot birdie putt following at the par-3 16th to double the advantage, allowing him to bogey the last and still win.
“I was as patient as I’ve been in a number of years out there,” Woods said. “I was controlling my shot placement, especially seeing that board. It was a who’s who.
“All these different scenarios keep flying around. It was an amazing buzz to follow what was going on and yet still focus on what I was trying to do out there. I liked it.”
Woods parred 17 and walked up to the 18th green to crowds 20-people deep applauding with delight, but he kept a stoic visage until the job was complete, a tap-in for bogey followed by a fist pump and a scream of joy in celebration of one of the greatest comebacks in sporting history.
“I know I screamed,” Woods said.
– One shy of Snead’s mark –
Woods, one shy of matching Nicklaus for the most career Masters wins, won his 81st career US PGA victory, one shy of the all-time record held by Sam Snead.
He also set a record for the longest gap between Masters triumphs, the 14-year spread one year longer than the old mark set by South African Gary Player from 1961 to 1974.
Woods, Molinari, Schauffele, Koepka and Johnson were together late on 12-under. None could go lower except Woods, with Molinari undone at the par-5 15th when his approach struck a tree limb and found water on the way to a double-bogey.
“The energy out there was brilliant,” Molinari said. “With Tiger being there, people were loving it. I gave it my best. I’m proud of that.”
Augusta National moved the final round to Sunday morning due to storms expected to arrive in the afternoon, when leaders would typically be battling for the title.
© Agence France-Presse