We know this: No matter where it happens, whenever history writes us all a memo in capital letters, it seems that more often than not, somebody from the Mining City is close by.
So it was Sunday in Augusta, Georgia, when Gary Shea and his nephew Chad Petersen were just putting distance away from Tiger Woods as he holed out on 18 at the Masters, winning his fifth green jacket and 15th major championship, completing a comeback few had thought possible.
“It was one of the most exciting days we’ve ever had in terms of watching a sporting event,” said Shea Monday as he waited to board a plane home from Atlanta.
“I’ve been to the Masters twice, and Chad’s been here three times. But being here on such a historic day was extra special,” he said.
Last year, Shea and Petersen attended a Tuesday practice day ahead of the tournament, along with Chad’s brother, Josh Petersen, and their stepfather, Doug Zemljak. That was very cool. But not like watching one of the best players in the history of the sport achieve the pinnacle after being dashed to the ground by a combination of injury, addiction, and personal issues.
The day started early. On Saturday evening, Petersen and Shea found out that the final round was being moved up several hours because of the threat of thunderstorms. So that called for a new strategy.
By 5 a.m. Sunday, Petersen and Shea were in line to claim their spots in the gallery. When the course gates opened at 7:15 a.m., they were able to secure spots to place their spectator chairs just behind the 18th green, in the third row.
When the final-day pin positions were placed, Shea and Petersen were just 75 feet away from the flag marking the spot where the tournament would end.
“That photograph that’s already famous, of Tiger with his hands in the air after he made the final putt, was taken right in front of us,” Shea said. “That’s how good our view was.”
Shea has long been an enthusiastic Tiger Woods fan. But he adds, “It didn’t matter on Sunday. Whether you were a Tiger fan or not a Tiger fan, you were cheering when he won.”
Shea said he had watched Tiger play at Torrey Pines in San Diego in an earlier comeback attempt a few years ago. “He was paired with Dustin Johnson and Jason Day, and it was evident that day that he wasn’t at their level,” Shea said. “So to see him regain that top level was remarkable.”
Masters tradition and courtesy dictates that once a spectator’s chair is placed, it will be there waiting for the spectator whenever he or she wants it. So Shea and Peterson were able to walk the course earlier in the afternoon as the drama built.
“So we were able to be in the bleachers at Amen Corner when the leading groups came through,” Shea said. As they watched from behind the 12th green, competitor Francesco Molinari, who had led Tiger by as much as three strokes earlier in the round, hit his tee shot to the par 3 that has had so much to do, over the decades, with who's won and who's lost at the Masters.
“We knew right away,” Shea said. “It would be short, and it would be wet.”
Indeed, Molinari’s shot found Rae’s Creek, producing a two-shot swing for Tiger. “At that moment, the tournament flipped,” Shea said, “and everybody at Augusta went nuts.”
As the lead group — which included Woods, Molinari, and Tony Finau — headed toward the finishing holes, Shea and Petersen decided they’d better hustle back to claim their chairs at the 18th. “We wanted to watch them play the 15th and 16th,” he said, “but we were afraid that if we did, we’d never be able to get back to our spot.”
So they settled for the next-best thing. As they watched the earlier groups finish up at 18, they also kept an eye on the huge old hand-operated leader board to monitor the final group’s performance leading into the final hole.
“We would hear roars from out on the course,” Shea said, “but of course until they posted scores, we didn’t really know what they meant. Was that a Tiger roar? There was no way to tell.”
By the time the final group reached the par-5 15th, Woods was co-leader at 12 under par for the tournament.
“When they posted the scores from 15, the first shock was Molinari,” Shea said. (Molinari went for the green from a bad position under a tree and ended up with a double-bogey 7, definitely ending his title hopes.) “Then, the operator of the scoreboard teased the gallery,” Shea said, “He would start to put up Tiger’s number, then withdraw it, then put it up again.”
The number was a red “13” – Woods had birdied the hole to go 13 under par — and he was alone in the lead by a single shot.
Then, when the scores went up on 16, Woods’s number turned to 14 under after his second straight birdie. He had a two-shot lead with two holes to go. “Everybody realized then that there was a good chance it would actually happen,” Shea said.
As Woods teed off on the par-4 18th, he — and millions in the gallery and watching on TV — knew that he just needed a bogey 5 or better to win. He was never in trouble. His tee shot was well positioned, and he hit his second shot just off the green.
Walking up the fairway, it was evident from the TV camera viewpoint that Woods was working hard to stay in control of his emotions.
“We couldn’t see that as well as viewers on TV,” Shea said. “He looked calm and confident, but the emotions must have been raging.”
Then, when the final putt dropped for Woods’s 5 and the victory, he gave a little, almost tentative fist pump and a couple of seconds later raised his arms in the classical position of victory and jubilation.
“The emotions just poured out,” Shea said. “It was truly an amazing moment.”
Shea said that Woods clearly knew how special the moment was for the crowd as well as for himself. “It was different from the way I’d seen him before,” he said. “He walked all around the green. He truly wanted to share that feeling with his fans.”
Later, Shea and Petersen watched Woods as he came out of the Butler Cabin wearing the emblematic green jacket and mingled with the crowd on the practice green.
All in all, Shea said, it was a fabulous thing to share with his nephew.
“What a great family memory,” he said.