AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tiger Woods is the Masters champion once again, turning back a surprising challenge Sunday with a shot of sheer magic and a birdie putt to win a playoff he never expected.
A spectacular finish of birdies and bogeys finally ended when Woods produced the most important shot of all: a 15-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole to capture his fourth green jacket and finally put away the gritty Chris DiMarco.
Woods knew it was over when the ball was a foot from the hole, taking two steps to the left as a smile creased his face and his right fist punched the air with fury.
Everything else about this Masters was up in the air to the end.
First came the most improbable birdie on the par-3 16th, when Woods skipped his chip shot up the slope and watched it crawl 25 feet down to the cup, where it paused for 2 long seconds before dropping.
“I would rank that as one of the best ones I’ve ever hit,” Woods said. “It turned things around. It was pretty huge.”
Then came an even bigger surprise. The greatest closer in golf, who had never lost a third-round lead in a major, looked like a first-timer at Augusta National, making a mess out of the last two holes to finish with two bogeys and allow DiMarco one more chance.
Woods made sure that was all he got.
DiMarco came up short of the green, just as he had in regulation, and chipped up for a tap-in par. He took his hat off and ran his hand through his hair, crouched and kept looking up at Woods and down at his feet, afraid to watch, perhaps knowing what was about to happen.
When the ball disappeared, DiMarco walked slowly over to Woods and congratulated him.
Woods closed with a 1-under 71 and won for the second time in a playoff at a major, wrapping up a long and bizarre week at Augusta National that included two rain delays, an eagle putt that Woods rolled off the green and into the creek, a record run of birdies to get back into contention and, finally, the fight of his life.
It showed at the closing ceremony, where he cried while dedicating this Masters victory to his father, who was too ill to leave his hotel room.
“Every year that I’ve been lucky enough to win this tournament, my dad’s been there to give me a big hug. And today, he wasn’t there,” Woods said, his voice cracking and his eyes filling with tears. “I can’t wait to get home and see him, and give him a big bear hug.”
Woods never needed so many heroics to win his previous three Masters.
DiMarco was responsible for that.
“This was one fun victory, but also a lot of work because I was playing with one heck of a competitor,” Woods said. “Chris has got no backoff in him. He’ll come at you, and that’s what he did today. He put up a heck of a fight.”
Woods emerged from this battle with his ninth major, tied with Ben Hogan and Gary Player, halfway home to the standard set by Jack Nicklaus. He joined Nicklaus (six) and Arnold Palmer (four) as the only players with at least four Masters titles.
Still, this didn’t look like the same player who won his first eight majors.
At times Woods was simply brilliant, especially when he made up a four-shot deficit in just two holes when the third round resumed Sunday morning. He tied a Masters record with seven straight birdies on his way to a 65, giving him a three-shot lead going into the final round.
But he made the kind of mistakes rarely seen from Woods in the final round of a major — a three-putt on the fifth hole from about 25 feet, a poor bunker shot on the 13th; all of them raising DiMarco’s hopes.
“Anytime you can make him hiccup a little bit, you know you’re doing something right,” DiMarco said.
Ultimately, all that mattered to Woods was having defending champion Phil Mickelson slip the green jacket over his shoulders in the Butler Cabin, and being a major champion again for the first time in nearly three years.
For DiMarco, it was the second straight year he saw the winning putt on the 18th hole at Augusta National. He played with Mickelson in the final group when “Lefty” rolled in an 18-footer from about the same spot as Woods.
His consolation was a 4-under 68, and a steely performance that kept fans on edge to the end.
“I was ready to win,” DiMarco said. “I will be ready to win next year. I certainly feel like I can.”
Both players finished at 12-under 276.
Woods won for the third time this year and returned to No. 1 in the world ranking.
DiMarco won over the crowd with his fist pumps and resiliency. After finishing the rain-delayed third round with a back-nine, 5-over-par 41 Sunday morning, DiMarco outplayed Woods in the final round and could easily have won, except for missing four birdie putts inside eight feet.
He also was up against some magic right out of Woods’ glorious past.
Woods was clinging to a one-shot lead and on the ropes, sailing his tee shot long over the par-3 16th green with DiMarco facing a 15-footer for birdie. Woods played his chip up the slope and watched it trickle down, begging from his knees for it to keep going. When it stopped, then dropped, it looked as though Woods had the Masters won.
But even a two-shot lead with two holes to play wasn’t enough.
Woods sliced his tee shot on No. 17 into the pines, couldn’t reach the green and escaped with bogey when his pitch rolled off the green. He sailed his approach on the 18th into the bunker on the right and made another bogey.
That forced the 13th playoff in Masters history, and the second one in three years.
From a staggering rally by Woods in the morning — he made up a four-shot deficit in 22 minutes with five shots — to a shocking collapse at the end, Augusta National lived up to its reputation as the most dramatic stage in golf.