Tiger Woods

What it’s like to play with Tiger Woods on the cusp of Masters victory? These 6 know it well.

Tiger Woods after his victory at the 1997 Masters.

Getty Images

He hooked his first tee shot into the trees. He bogeyed four of his first nine holes. He limped to the 10th at Augusta National with a 40. And on April 10, 1997, in his first round at the Masters as a professional, Tiger Woods still bettered his playing partner, defending champion Nick Faldo, by a stroke on the front nine. Of course, you likely know what happened three days and 63 holes later. A quarter century ago, Woods won the Masters Tournament by 12 strokes — and the margin remains the standard for domination over a Masters field. You also likely know he’s won the event four more times. But those who stood next to Woods tee-to-green know the story best. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of Woods’ first green-jacket win, we’ve collected stories from the players paired with him in the final rounds of his five victories. So, “Fore, please! Tony Finau, Francesco Molinari, Chris DiMarco, Retief Goosen, Phil Mickelson and Constantino Rocca, now driving.”

1997 Masters

Tiger Woods, Constantino Rocca
Tiger Woods and Constantino Rocca after the 1997 Masters. Getty Images

Final-round pairing: Tiger Woods (-15), Constantino Rocca (-6)

Woods’ winning score: 270 (-18)

His margin of victory was 12 strokes — which remains a Masters record. But Woods still had work to do heading into the final round: win his first major and, at age 21, put every Tour player on notice for the next two decades.

Rocca: “When you start the fourth round at Augusta National with a nine-shot lead, it’s still not a sure win at the Masters. That day, Tiger was the best player. Even with that lead, he was attacking the course, playing without fear. For the first nine holes, he was nearly perfect. I was playing well, but it was extremely difficult to try to catch him. We didn’t have much conversation, but there was great respect. Every well-played shot was complimented with ‘good shot.’ On the final nine holes, the people supported him like crazy. I don’t know if anyone even remembers I was on the course! The thing that impressed me most about Tiger that day, and at that point in his young career, was that he didn’t play like a 21-year-old; he played like a much more experienced golfer. It was the most dominating performance I had ever seen. Playing with Tiger at Augusta was a fantastic experience, but on that day no one could have beat him.”

2001 Masters

Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson after the 2001 Masters. Getty Images

Final-round pairing: Tiger Woods (-12 ), Phil Mickelson (-11) 

Woods’ winning score: 272 (-16)

Tiger’s second Masters win — and sixth major in four years — required some digging out. He was T-15 after the first round. But a personal piece of history was on the line.

What didn’t this pairing have? For Woods, a win would complete the Tiger Slam, as he had won the previous year’s U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship. To add to the hype, Woods, ranked No. 1 in the world at the time, was squaring off with the World No. 2. Woods’ margin of victory would turn out to be modest — two better than David Duval, three better than Mickelson — but, inevitably, a little stinging to Lefty. At his post-tournament presser, Mickelson was asked if he was playing his best golf “at the wrong time in history.” “No,” he replied. “Not really. Not yet.” He was also asked if he felt he’d gotten beat by Woods, or if he played well enough to win, but it just got away. His response was typical of the public stance he’d take for years to come about his rival: never give in. “My game,” he said, “is to a point where I feel like I can finally win these tournaments and contend in them regularly. I really do have that confidence. When I look back on this week, though, if I’m going to win with Tiger in the field, I cannot make the mistakes that I have been making. … But, all in all, I don’t feel as though I’m that far off.” Three years later, Mickelson broke through to win the first of his three green jackets.

2002 Masters 

Tiger Woods, Retief Goosen
Tiger Woods and Retief Goosen after the 2002 Masters. Getty Images

Final-round pairing: Tiger Woods (-11), Retief Goosen (-11)

Woods’ winning score: 276 (-12)

A searing, third-round 66 set up Woods for a stirring finale — win and he’d become only the third player in Masters history (after Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo) to go back-to-back at Augusta.

Goosen: “It’s exciting to play with Tiger, because it usually means you’re playing well. But it’s not easy playing with him. The crowd was always behind him, and it’s tough to block out the noise. But, somehow, he managed to tune out the distractions. A major is always difficult to close out, and Tiger made a few mistakes, but his recoveries were amazing. After missing the green on 6, he ends up chipping in for birdie. On 15, he hit his drive into the trees and had to lay up. I left myself 20 feet for eagle, and he almost holes his third shot to equal my birdie. I’ve noticed that all the greats are able to do that. Jack, Ben — they all were able to hit the right shot at the right moment. That’s what Tiger did. Even in defeat, I was motivated by him to try and win more major championships.”

2005 Masters 

Tiger Woods, Chris DiMarco
Tiger Woods celebrates his victory over Chris DiMarco in a playoff at the 2005 Masters. Getty Images

Final-round pairing: Tiger Woods (-11), Chris DiMarco (-8)

Woods’ winning score (playoff): 276 (–12)

After darkness suspended third-round play, Woods faced a 27-hole Sunday, which a gritty Chris DiMarco pushed to 28.

DiMarco: “Tiger was always so business-like when we played together. I remember one year, my Florida Gators had just won the National Championship. To lighten the mood a bit, I wrote ‘Go Gators’ on a ball and chipped it over to him on the range. He picked it up and wrote ‘F#$% the Gators’ and chipped it back to me! Very business-like. And it was no different that Sunday at the 2005 Masters. I remember him being in this cocoon of focus, though his game wasn’t perfect. Tiger had been going through a swing change that year, and down the stretch you could see some uncomfortableness with his golf swing. He wasn’t trusting it, especially the swing on the par-3 16th. When he hit the famous chip on 16, I was doing everything in my power to blow that ball up the hill instead of down the hill. But, of course, we just watched the ball trickle in and fall over the edge. The crowd noise was so loud, I had to yell ‘Great shot!’ three or four times for him to hear me. Tiger is a ruthless winner, and that’s what made him the greatest of all time. But he’s a very gracious winner to the guys he beats. He wanted to step on my neck that day, but he loved me for going the distance and for pushing him all the way to a playoff.”

2019 Masters

Tiger Woods, Francesco Molinari, Tony Finau
From left, Francesco Molinari, Tiger Woods and Tony Finau during the final round of the 2019 Masters. Getty Images

Final-round pairing: Francesco Molinari (-13), Tony Finau (-11), Tiger Woods (-11)

Woods’ winning score: 275 (-13)

A forecast of thunderstorms forced the green jackets to send out threesomes on Sunday. At age 43, on the comeback trail after multiple surgeries and scandals, and 11 years removed from his last (and 14th) major win, Woods entered the final round with one impossible-to-fathom prospect: 15!

Molinari: “Playing with Tiger on a Sunday, especially in a major, he is all business. That day, in 2019, was very similar to when we were paired together for the final round of the Open Championship at Carnoustie in 2018. Tiger got the lead after the front nine, he made a mistake on 11 and I had a strong finish. At the Masters, it went the other way: I made the mistake on 12, and he grabbed the lead and closed it out. I remember Tiger being frustrated. Then my mistake on 12 gave him a lot of energy. He saw the door opening and grabbed it with two hands. His tee shot on 17 was massive, which gave him some cushion to play 18 without any worry. I think some day, when I stop playing, I will look back and say, ‘That was cool to be a part of.’ But now — it’s still too early. Me and probably three other people in the whole world wish it had gone the other way.”

Finau: “I was in my zone trying to win the tournament, but I think I was able to enjoy it. I definitely felt the magnitude of the moment. Tiger had fallen off physically and had his personal life absolutely destroyed. I had a front-row seat to witness, in my opinion, the greatest comeback sports story of all time. The anticipation on the 18th green was amazing. I was the first one to congratulate Tiger when he won. I told him how proud I was of him, as a fan and as a person. He didn’t need to win another Masters to prove anything, but that victory shows he is truly the greatest who’s played our game.”

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