This is not a golf article for the people who watch golf every weekend, or every other weekend. This is a golf article for the people who watch golf once, maybe twice a year, the people who get anxiety at the sight and sound of rich white Americans in cargo shorts shouting 'mashed potato', who are turned off by golf's links to evangelical Christianity and Donald Trump and Augusta National's legacy of gender and racial discrimination, but still find the pageantry of the Masters, especially on Sunday, intoxicating, like mint julep.
Tiger Woods will not be playing at Augusta this year, but his shadow will hang over the weekend. There are many Tiger clones, but no one in golf can even come close to what Tiger once was. Every time the Masters rolls around, I got nostalgic for the last time Tiger legitimately threatened at Augusta, the final round in 2011.
Phil Mickelson had won the 2010 Masters and provided golf with the emotional, paternal embrace that it needed after Woods had tainted the game's austere image with tawdry sex and vicodin. Mickelson had been through a lot in 2010, and the media foisted him to the world as the Anti-Tiger. Woods, you must presume, arrived in Augusta in 2011 ready to make a point.
2011 will not be remembered as the year Charl Schwartzel won the Masters. As time passes, it feels more and more like a generational torchpassing, but it was surely not the beginning of the Schwartzel era. Heading into the last round, a slightly pudgy, 21-year-old, pre-gunshow Rory McIlroy had a four-stroke lead over Angel Cabrera and three others. McIlroy had lead the tournament since Thursday. Here he was, ready to announce himself to the world. All he had to do was shoot even par. Tiger Woods was seven strokes back, but seemed on a downward trajectory following a 74 on the Saturday. Young Australians Jason Day and Adam Scott were in the top 5. Fred Couples was even in contention, because Fred Couples at the Masters.
The front nine
McIlroy's meltdown is famous but it didn't really come until the turn, though it was brewing from his first tee show. Instead, let's remember what happened to Woods. He exploded into the round. Birdied the second. Birdied the third. Gave one back on the fourth, but then birdied 6 and 7 before an eagle on 8.
The eagle on the 8th deserves a hall of fame of its own.
With his second shot, Woods basically attempted a wild, baseball-style swing, putting a boomerang hook on the ball. It veers for Atlanta before swinging back and bouncing through some light rough and ending up about 15 feet from the hole. The commentator in the above clip predicted a fist pump if Woods got his eagle, and Woods delivered fist pump for the ages. He let his guard down in that maniacal celebration and showed just how much it all meant to him.
As an aside, in this clip, and throughout this round, Tiger seems sweaty and discommoded with his Nike top. He keeps readjusting his shirt. Call it amateur psychology, but that always struck me as an indicator of the discomfort Tiger had in his own skin post-Thanksgiving 2009.
He finished his back nine -5 and was suddenly tied for the lead. I remember I had laid Woods in a betting exchange before the round and I was now on the hook. McIlroy must have felt the same way, times a million.
It was an utterly unbelievable 90 minutes of sport. Seemingly vulnerable, Woods seemed superhuman again. There was an air of inevitability this now. Day, Scott, Schwartzel were all on the move but I put McIlroy's implosion on 10, 11, 12 (+7 on the three holes) directly down to Woods rising from the scrapheap.
This screenshot from the 10th says everything.
The back nine
It's not that Woods imploded - he was even par on those nine holes - it's just that he was drained of his magic. The mortality of Eldrick Woods was no longer something to be debated. It was blatant on Amen Corner, the holes where Woods had carved his myth. He bogeyed the par 3 12th despite a solid tee shot. He only managed par on the 13th, a hole he was -41 on the hole in career. We could see his temper beginning to fray.
Woods three-putted on 13, and Day, Scott and Schwartzel were leaving him in the dust. It was over, just like that.
You look at the scores that hot Augusta Easter Sunday --- Schwartzel shot 66, Day shot 67, Scott shot 68. What could Woods, 7 strokes back at the start of the round, really have done? Even Woods in his pomp would have struggled to bridge that deficit. Still, it feels to me like Woods lost that tournament himself.
And though he was in the mix in 2013 Masters, I would argue that the 2011 Masters was really the last time we saw Tiger Woods play golf, the Tiger that put the fear of death in flabby golfers. It was the point where his vast competitive hunger and golf genius flared vividly to life, only for the physical, emotional and spiritual toll of the previous eighteen months to sap him. Tiger has never really been Tiger since.
There have been plenty of memorable days for casual golf fans since (Scott vs Cabrera in '13, McIlroy's PGA win in 2015 comes to mind) but I have not been captivated by a golfer since Woods during that final round.
Woods shot 67 on the day and his final act of grace was his second shot on 15.
It all returned again after he put the ball within 5 feet of the flag- the spin of the club, the slow strut towards the green, the glove slowly removed. The assassin's last gift.