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Tod Leonard: Who wasn't crying during Woods' emotional victory in the Masters?

The San Diego Union-Tribune — By Tod Leonard The San Diego Union-Tribune

April 15-- AUGUSTA, Ga.-"Is it OK to cry?"

Minutes after Tiger Woods won the Masters, a Facebook friend and golf instructor in San Diego posted that question.

The answer: Who wasn't crying Sunday afternoon?

Tiger Woods was crying. His children were crying. His media handler of many years, Glenn Greenspan, was sobbing when he hugged Woods coming off the 18th green at Augusta National. Fans were crying between spontaneous shouts of "Tiger!" as they made their way to the exits.

In the interview room, Craig Heatley, a towering figure of a man and the Augusta National member who conducted the news conference, nearly had teardrops falling onto the lapel of his green jacket when he introduced Woods.

"Tiger, welcome back," Heatley, his voice cracking, said in his Australian accent. "Or should I say, more appropriately, welcome home."

And yes, an hour earlier, this reporter blinked away tears as I sat a few rows behind the 18th green in the tiny, roped-off spot reserved for members of the "working press," as they call us at Augusta.

We aren't supposed to be emotionally involved in our subjects or their accomplishments. And Woods is a man for whom I've expressed deep disappointment in the past because he seemingly threw away everything dear to him by leading a selfish double life.

But how could anybody not get wrapped up in this American story of redemption?

"Is it OK to cry?"

The scandal. The knee problems. Four back surgeries-the last fusing vertebrae together so that he could simply walk around like a normal human being.

On Wednesday night in Augusta, the Golf Writers Association of America bestowed on Woods its Ben Hogan Award for a player who has "overcome a physical handicap or serious injury to remain active in golf."

Active?

How about winning your first major of any kind in 11 years and first Masters in 14? Or taking your 15th major title at the age of 43, almost exactly two years removed from laying in a hospital bed and just hoping you could put two feet on the floor without excruciating pain.

Ben Hogan, indeed. We know the stories of his comeback from a near-fatal car accident to win the 1960 U.S. Open. This returning triumph by Woods is no less improbable or impressive.

For me, the emotion lay not in the actual victory, but in the way Woods celebrated it.

Recall that Sunday in June 2008 at Torrey Pines when Woods made his birdie putt to force a Monday playoff with Rocco Mediate. That wild celebration from the gut that has been viewed millions of times over 11 years came from a man who expected to make that putt. Maybe he even believed the entire universe aligned just for him in that moment.

This was a different celebration and a different Woods in the moments after he tapped in his bogey putt to win the 83rd Masters by one stroke over major champions Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and rising young star Xander Schauffele.

There was a joy in Woods' eyes, a looseness in his body. He playfully slapped hands with caddie Joe LaCava and Woods' arms sprang into the air repeatedly-not because he was thinking about it, just because he had to release the happiness somehow.

The moments with his kids, who only first experienced their dad's competitive aura when he won the Tour Championship last fall, were priceless.

Maybe that is where the emotion lay for many of us. You know how much the guy has been through, self-inflicted and otherwise, and to see him experience that feeling again, in a very different way than all of his other 80 wins, made him more like us than a god we could never touch.

Truth be told, I was dead wrong about Tiger's golf.

Asked many times over the last few years if I thought Woods could ever win a major again, I answered with a well-rehearsed no, though I always allowed this one caveat: If he pulled it off, it would be at Augusta, where it's been proven time and again that knowledge and hours spent on those fairways and greens can be the elixir for other ailments.

But even that experience seemed possibly obsolete against the enormous depth of young talent on the PGA Tour, and their ridiculous ability to drive the golf ball for miles.

How could Woods keep up with them on a Masters course that basically plays as a par-68 for the bombers.

Still, anybody has to play superbly to win the Masters, and Woods did so with some of the greatest players in the world trading punches with him.

On this occasion, they made their gaffes at the water holes that are so crucial on Sunday, and Woods didn't. He made a safe birdie at 12, birdies at the par-5 13th and 15th, and birdie over the pond at 16.

Keep in mind, Woods is still hitting it out there off the tee. "Some pop in my bat," he said.

On Sunday night, Woods reviewed his approach shots and kept repeating the same club: 8-iron.

"How many 8-irons is that?" he asked.

The answer: nine. On two other holes he hit 9-iron. Wouldn't we all love to play golf with short clubs in our hands?

Woods led the field in greens hit in regulation (83 percent), because he kept the ball in play most of the time from the tee box.

"I will tell you it's the best I've felt with a driver in years," Woods said. "I was able to hit the golf ball both ways this week, and some of the shots I hit down 13, turn it around the corner; a couple of drives down 2; some of the bombs I hit down 3; and then to hit little squeezers out there down 7. You saw it today on 15 and 17 and even on 18, just little trap-squeezers out there."

It's fun to hear the jargon again from a guy who likes to make golf sound like a real sport. (Kidding.)

Golf never became irrelevant in Woods' absence, but the casual fan surely will be watching more closely in the coming months.

Up next in only a month is the new schedule position for the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, where Woods captured the U.S. Open in 2002. In June, he returns to Pebble Beach, where his dominating win in 2000 came during the best stretch of golf he has ever played.

Will the driver behave enough to give Woods a chance?

I rolled my eyes when someone Sunday night asked if Woods thought he could still catch Jack Nicklaus and his record of 18 major wins. It was an obvious query, of course, but there is that nagging feeling, "Can't we just let the guy enjoy the freakin' moment?"

Woods didn't bite at it much.

"I'm sure that I'll probably think of it going down the road," he said. "Maybe, maybe not."

Far sillier, somebody else asked, "Do you think Jack should be worried as far as the 18 majors?"

"Well, I don't know if he's worried or not," Woods responded with a smile. "I'm sure he's home in West Palm just chilling and watching."

And probably crying.

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