By Steve Keating
AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) - Tiger Woods completed one of sport's greatest comebacks to end an 11-year major title drought at the Masters on Sunday by claiming a fifth Green Jacket.
A gritty two-under 70 clinched a one-shot victory over Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele and earned the 43-year-old a 15th major title that many thought would never come and instantly sparked talk of Woods making a run at Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors.
Not since the 2008 U.S. Open had Woods hoisted a major trophy and the last of his four Augusta titles came in 2005.
But after a beaming Woods slipped on his fifth Green Jacket, he will be aware that Sunday's win has brought him tantalizingly close to another Nicklaus record - that of six Augusta titles.
The victory also marked the first time Woods had reached the winner's circle at major without leading after 54 holes and broke Gary Player's record (13 years) for the longest gap between Masters wins.
It also gave him 81 PGA Tour titles, one away from the career record held by Sam Snead.
Woods's girlfriend Erica Herman, mother Kultida and two children Sam and Charlie watched while a massive gallery roared as he marched up to the 18th green to put the finishing touches on a milestone victory.
When his final tap in bogey putt disappeared into the cup, Woods delivered one of his trademark fist pumps and then raised both arms in the air while screaming in absolute delight as the crowd chanted, "Tiger, Tiger, Tiger".
He then quickly spotted his family and raced over to hug his children before making his way to the scorers room while being congratulated by his fellow golfers who lined the way.
"I was just trying to plod my way along the golf course all day," said Woods. "When I tapped the putt in, I don't know what I did but I know I screamed.
"To have my kids there - it's come full circle. My dad was here in 97 (when he won his first Masters) and now I'm the dad with two kids there."
Along with coping with a number of injuries over the past decade, Woods also had to deal with the damage done from a very public and scandalous divorce and an embarrassing DUI arrest.
Woods's return to the top garnered praise from world leaders and sporting greats alike, with United States president Donald Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama both offering congratulations via social media.
"Congratulations to @TigerWoods," tweeted Trump, who earlier this year played golf with Woods. "A truly Great Champion!"
Nicklaus, 23-times tennis grand slam winner Serena Williams, Super Bowl champion Tom Brady also applauded the victory on Twitter while swimmer Michael Phelps, the winner of a record 23 Olympic gold medals, was at Augusta National to cheer Woods on.
Written off as too old and too beaten up from four back surgeries and multiple knee operations, Woods underwent a back fusion procedure in 2017 and slowly returned to form.
He ended last season by winning the Tour Championship and showed signs of a breakthrough at the majors by being a title contender at last year's British Open, where he led in the final round, and PGA Championship, where he finished runner-up.
All those moments built to Sunday, when Woods was once again his old familiar dominating self.
"I had serious doubts after what transpired a couple years ago," said Woods. "I could barely walk. I couldn't sit. Couldn't lay down. I really couldn't do much of anything.
"Luckily I had the procedure on my back, which gave me a chance at having a normal life.
"To have the opportunity to come back like this it is probably one of the biggest wins I've ever had for sure because of it."
All eyes were on overnight leader Francesco Molinari, who led by two shots, Woods and the weather when play began on Sunday as the race for the Green Jacket turned into a final sprint with the forecast predicting rain and thunderstorms.
In a desperate attempt to get the season's first major across the finish line before the storm hit, officials pushed up start times and sent golfers off in threesomes from both the first and 10th tees.
Paired together in the final round of last year's British Open, won by the Italian at Carnoustie, Molinari and Woods found themselves in the last group again battling for a major title.
At Carnoustie it was Woods who stumbled on the back nine while leading. But on Sunday it was Molinari who slipped up, with the 36-year-old from Turin finding the water at the 12th and 15th. The two double bogeys ended his Green Jacket bid.
Molinari was far from the only contender to meet their demise at the 12th. Augusta National's signature hole at the heart of Amen Corner had the leaderboard spinning with Koepka, Tony Finau and Ian Poulter all ending up in the murky waters of Rae's Creek.
"Sometimes it is your day, sometimes it isn't, but I'm really happy of the way I felt out there today," said Molinari. "I've done a couple of things that I wish I had done differently now but I'll learn from my mistakes."
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)