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What it was like to witness Woods as he won major No. 15

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AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 14: (Sequence frame 7 of 12) Tiger Woods of the United States celebrates after making his putt on the 18th green to win the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 14, 2019 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 14: (Sequence frame 7 of 12) Tiger Woods of the United States celebrates after making his putt on the 18th green to win the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on April 14, 2019 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

What it was like to witness Woods as he won the Masters and major No. 15

    Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR

    AUGUSTA, Ga. – A man trying to stretch his back accidentally pokes another man in the nose, and everywhere fans carry rolled-up umbrellas and stacks of empty, plastic beer cups. Wisps of cigar smoke hang in the air, and footing is slippery over the fine, green leprechaun dust that covers the bare spots at Augusta National.

    You are out amongst the masses to watch Tiger Woods make history at the 83rd Masters, and you’re doing your best. You interpret the roars, jockey for sight lines, fill in the gaps. There are no video boards, but the big, manual scoreboards are a help. The groans tell you a lot. The chatter, too.

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    For a while it doesn’t look good as Woods makes back-to-back bogeys and misses an 11-foot birdie putt at the par-3 sixth. But back-to-back birdies at the seventh and eighth holes fuel a comeback, and by the time he splits the 15th fairway with a 293-yard drive, it starts to look like it might actually happen.

    His fifth Masters. His 15th major. Age 43.

    “Believe, Tiger!” a fan shouts as Woods walks off the tee. “Just believe!”

    Woods looks to his right, directly at the woman, Virginia Martinson of Chapel Hill. And he nods. Martinson, in a blue North Carolina golf shirt—her daughter used to coach the women’s golf team—beams with delight, as does her husband, Bill, in a white, floppy Amana hat.

    “It’s her squeaky voice!” Bill says. “Normally he don’t hear a thing!”

    Woods is tied for the lead, Xander Schauffele and Brooks Koepka and even Dustin Johnson and Patrick Cantlay doing their best to turn him away. To deny history. He has 234 yards remaining over water to an upside-down cereal bowl of a green. Woods rears back and swings, and his ball becomes a spec in the air.

    “He likes it,” someone says.

    Commentary. You hear a lot of it, watching history amongst the masses. And you appreciate it.

    You also hear a woman say, “When I got the e-mail, I thought, Oh, I probably got some practice-round tickets. But Sunday! Quickest $230 I ever spent.” And you hear a man say, “If for some reason we get separated: World of Beers.”

    Woods’ second shot lands on the 15th green, 44 feet right of the pin, and fans pump their fists as he two-putts for birdie. This is happening. This is real.

    His tee shot at 16 nearly goes in, and the throngs on the bank left of the green are delirious with excitement. Another birdie. It’s more than real, now—it’s practically over. He’s 14-under. He’s done enough. All he needs now is to make sure the wheels don’t fly off.

    His fans are beside themselves. A man in a tiger-print T-shirt. Two other men in green T-shirts with the image of a hybrid sort of creature that’s between a tiger and a goat. As in, Tiger is the Greatest Of All Time. Is he? It’s certainly been the greatest comeback story, from being unable to live pain-free to a last-ditch spinal fusion to winning major No. 15.

    Those leaps are quantum.

    You strike up a conversation with a kid in a TW cap, his old logo, and he introduces himself as Brandon Jones of Phoenix. He’s 24, and pledged he would buy the hat as soon as his dad told him a year ago that the family would be traveling to watch the Masters.

    “My brother is the biggest Tiger fan,” Jones says. “It’s fun to watch his reaction to this. He’s five years older than me, but he’s acting like a 12-year-old.”

    Tiger’s kids, son Charlie Axel, 10, and daughter Sam Alexis, 11, are here. They’ve never seen their old man win a major until now. It’s happening right in front of them. It’s not YouTube.

    Woods pars 17, and makes a meaningless bogey on 18 to win by a shot over Johnson, Koepka and Schauffele. “We did it!” Woods screams after hugging his caddie, Joe LaCava. “We did it!” Woods walks off the green and hugs his son, Charlie, which the TV people will juxtapose with Woods hugging his father, Earl, after winning the 1997 Masters. The symmetry is spectacular.

    You’re thinking a lot about Earl, who would have been 87 today. Because sitting on one of those long, black metal benches on the concourse leading up to the first hole is Eugene Hicks, 72. He’s not Earl, but he could be. Hicks is wearing an Army-green Vietnam cap, a yellow polo shirt, and khaki cargo shorts. A thick scar runs up each knee, the result of parachuting out of airplanes.

    “It’s all good,” he says with a smile as he details his multiple knee replacements. “If you survived two wars, Vietnam and Desert Storm in Iraq, this is nothing.”

    Hicks hasn’t seen any of the golf. Not Woods’ 4-under performance over the final 12 holes, not Molinari’s mistakes on 12 and 15, not Johnson and Schauffele shooting 68, nor Koepka’s 70. Instead, he’s listened to it. With certain roars, Hicks has gotten up off that bench and hobbled over to the giant manual scoreboard nearby to confirm his suspicions.

    No, he’s not Earl, but they’re connected. Hicks fought in the Tet Offensive in 1968, with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. And he’s followed Tiger’s career since the day he was watching TV and came upon The Mike Douglas Show, featuring Earl and his 2-year-old son.

    “I’m thinkin’, look at that kid!” Hicks says. He shakes his head.

    “Earl was Airborne, too,” he adds, “but he was Special Forces, I think. I think he was an officer. I was a grunt.” Hicks smiles at this. He has boys of his own, 50 and 46, both with good jobs, one for AARP and the other for George Washington University.

    “Of course I wish they were golfers, like Tiger,” he says with a rueful chuckle, “but that’s alright. Whenever we talk on the phone, they end it with, ‘I love you, Dad.’

    “I could see that love with Tiger and Earl,” he continues. “With that hug they shared, you know. Remember that? It shows. I’m not saying Earl did everything right, but he did right by that boy.”

    The patrons are streaming for the exits, the storm coming on fast; the evacuation siren will blow before Woods even gets to the interview room. His five Masters are one shy of Jack Nicklaus’ total, his 15 majors just three behind the great Golden Bear’s final tally. Nicklaus won here at 46, and now Woods has done it at 43 after a nearly 11-year major drought.

    “He wins here, I guarantee he will win another major this year,” says Hicks.

    The PGA Championship will be at Bethpage, the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Woods, of course, has won at both. Hicks won’t be there, but others will come in droves, and they, too, will believe.

    Cameron Morfit began covering the PGA TOUR with Sports Illustrated in 1997, and after a long stretch at Golf Magazine and joined PGATOUR.COM as a Staff Writer in 2016. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.

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