He idolized Tiger Woods as a kid. On Masters Sunday, he played dream round with him

neal shipley and tiger woods on the 18th green on masters sunday

Neal Shipley and Tiger Woods played together in the final round of the 2024 Masters.

Darren Riehl/GOLF

AUGUSTA, Ga. — When the U.S. Open visited Oakmont Country Club, near Pittsburgh, in 2007, Neal Shipley Sr. took his 6-year-old son Neal Jr., to a practice round. Little Neal dressed head to toe in Tiger Woods gear — red shirt, Nike hat, the whole deal — and kept an eye on his favorite player from a perch on Neal Sr.’s shoulders.

“We were right up against the ropes the whole time,” the elder Shipley told me Sunday. “I said, ‘Put your hand out maybe Tiger will slap you a high five. But for 18 holes, Tiger was so laser-focused. He didn’t touch him. Didn’t acknowledge this little kid dressed like him. So to think that we’re here now, it’s really incredible.”

Here was a warm, idyllic Masters Sunday at Augusta National, where 17 years after watching Woods tune up for one major, little Neal, now 23 and not so little, found himself paired with one of his golfing idols in the final round of another major. This game is good like that. There’s connective tissue everywhere you look. And sometimes that connectivity culminates in, well, pick your descriptor — Feel-good? Fairytale? Fantasyland? — moments like we had Sunday: a college kid in his first Masters lucking into a Sunday tee time with T. Woods.

Shipley, a fifth-year senior at Ohio State who spent most of his college career at James Madison University, punched his ticket to this 88th Masters by finishing runner-up at the U.S. Amateur, at Cherry Hills, near Denver, last summer. In the 36-hole final, Shipley lost to Nick Dunlap, who would go on, in January, to become the first amateur to win a PGA Tour event since Phil Mickelson in 1991. Dunlap dispatched Shipley, 4 and 3, in the championship match, but Shipley, with his flowing locks and high energy and Regular Joe appeal, was the crowd favorite. Perhaps you saw highlights of him from that week — high-fiving, chest-bumping and generally charging up the galleries.

That’s Shipley. He has never been afraid to express himself. “We’re from Western Pennsylvania; it’s in our DNA,” his father said Sunday from left of the 5th fairway. “That’s where Arnie is from, and he had that everyman quality, too. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

Which isn’t to say Shipley didn’t take this week seriously. At 7 a.m. Monday, he was one of the first two players on the range, banging balls into the crisp morning air. The range’s only other occupant? Yep, Tiger Woods, who was shaking off the rust in preparation for his first competitive start since he withdrew from the Genesis Invitational, in February, and 26th Masters appearance. The foreshadowing on the gleaming practice facility escaped Shipley, who at that moment was thinking only of job No. 1: getting to the weekend.

On Monday, Shipley played a practice round with Dunlap. That night, he bunked in the Crow’s Nest, in the upper reaches of the Augusta National clubhouse, with two of the other four amateurs in the field, Christo Lamprecht and Jasper Stubbs. They watched UConn throttle Purdue on what Shipley described as “one of the smallest TVs you’ll ever see.” On Tuesday, Shipley played with Russell Henley and 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson.

Those rounds weren’t Shipley’s first tours of the course. Far from it. In the lead-up to the Masters, amateurs are permitted five pre-Masters week practice days, an invitation of which Shipley took full advantage, playing more than 140 holes at Augusta National from January through late March. Shipley also picked the brain of six-time green-jacket winner Jack Nicklaus, arranged by way of an apparel deal Shipley has with Nicklaus Golf. Over a March breakfast in South Florida, Shipley said Nicklaus gave him strategic advice on all 18 holes.

So, yeah, Shipley might have been a Masters rookie but he was a supremely prepared one, which is what you might expect from a player with a quantitative finance degree from JMU and master’s in data analytics from Ohio State, with a third degree in the works. “He thinks like a 30-year-old,” his swing coach, Way Ismail, told me Sunday as he watched his pupil play the 7th hole. Shipley craves big moments, too. “He wants the ball,” Ismail said. “He’s always been that way, even when he wasn’t very good. Not all kids are that way.”

That moxie was evident when Shipley broke par in his first-ever Masters round, his one-under 71 Thursday leaving him six back of Bryson DeChambeau’s lead. In wicked conditions Friday, Shipley posted a gritty second-round 76 to drop to three over but still stay well inside the six-over cutline. Shipley had made the weekend, the only amateur to do so. Shipley’s most disappointing round of the week came Saturday, when he made no birdies, six bogeys and a closing double to shoot 80.

After the round, he repaired to the practice green to work on the part of his game that was most hindering him, his putting. That’s when Shipley’s caddie and longtime friend, Carter Pitcarin, approached Shipley with some news. The Sunday pairings had been finalized, and Shipley was going off at 9:35 a.m. with a five-time champion named Tiger Woods.  “He just dropped everything and started freaking out,” Pitcarin told me. Moments, later Shipley’s phone started blowing up with an onslaught of OMG! texts from friends. “He’s gonna need a new phone,” Pitcarin joked.

Shipley rented a house this week in North Augusta, S.C., a 20-minute drive from the club. His parents, Neal Sr. and Susie, stayed with him. So, too, did his high-school sweetheart, Molly, and her parents, along with a few other family members.  Shipley said he slept soundly Saturday night. “We were not too close to the lead, so I wasn’t too nervous,” he said. “But when we got here this morning and saw Tiger on the range, it was like, Oh, my gosh, this is actually happening.” Ten minutes before their starting time, Shipley and Woods were the only players rapping putts on the practice green behind the first tee, a swarm of patrons, five or six deep, jockeying for a peek. Shipley didn’t say how his nerves were in that moment, but just watching this scene, it was impossible not to be nervous for him.

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By 9:20, he was on the tee and a couple minutes later an Augusta member in a green coat and white hat commenced the proceedings.

“Fore, please … now driving, Neal Shipley.”

Shipley’s round didn’t start as he would have liked — his opening blast found the bunker right of the fairway — but he was off and running, riding shotgun around Augusta National with an all-time great. Somewhere in the spectating masses were Neal Sr. and Susie and Molly, ducking and craning for glimpses of their guy. “That’s the downside of Neal playing with Tiger,” Neal Sr. joked. “We can’t see him.”

His son opened bogey-birdie-bogey then settled himself with three pars. After a perfect drive at the par-4 7th, Shipley hit his approach to four feet and made 3. On the next hole, an uphill par-5 , Shipley got home in two and two-putted from 40 feet for another birdie to move to one under on his round. Nerves? Please. Woods, meanwhile, played the same stretch in four over. On Masters Sundays in his world-dominating prime, Woods was about as chatty as a Carthusian monk, but on this Sunday he and Shipley conversed throughout their round like old pals. They talked about golf and golf courses and Tiger’s son, Charlie, who was on the grounds Sunday. At one point, Oakmont came up.    

“I like the old Oakmont with trees,” Woods said.

To which Shipley jokingly replied, “I’m not old enough to remember that Oakmont.”

“One of my more relaxed rounds of the week,” Shipley said afterward. “I think Tiger made me feel really welcomed.”

Pitcarin, Shipley’s looper, said when they made the walk from the 11th green to the 12th tee, the roars of appreciation for Woods nearly stopped him in his tracks, and from there on in there wasn’t much letup. “Just kept getting louder as the holes went on,” the caddie said.

Shipley parred the first four holes on the inward nine but played the last five in two over to finish with a one-over 73. Still, he had bettered Woods by four. Had Shipley found himself pulling for his idol? “Certainly rooting for him, and rooting for good golf shots,” he said. “He’s really grinding and making a big commitment to be out here for everyone.”

After Woods and Shipley had holed out on 18, they walked through hordes of cheering patrons on their way to scoring. Woods led the way with Shipley a few paces behind, nodding appreciatively, even if most of the crowd’s adulation was directed at Woods. Minutes later, his scorecard signed and his first Masters officially in the books, Shipley spotted his family and friends along a rope line by the clubhouse.

The first hug was for Molly.

“I love you,” Shipley said in her ear.

Then, grinning, he looked past her to the rest of the group and said of his round with Woods what everyone else was thinking: “How cool was that?”

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