The Phantom Punch.
Two iconic moments forever frozen in time thanks to the still images that captured Muhammed Ali’s first-round knockout of Sonny Liston in 1965 and Michael Jordan’s soaring takeoff from the free-throw line to defeat Dominique Wilkins in the 1988 NBA Slam Dunk Contest.
Few can recall the exact details and events that led up to these defining moments. After so many years, the image becomes the story.
The specifics from Tiger Woods’ remarkable Masters triumph last week at Augusta National are still fresh. The momentum-swinging iron shot at No. 7. The short-game touch to save par at No. 9.
Those key pieces will fade in time. What will we remember 30 years from now, when the story is conveyed to a new generation?
The red mock turtleneck. Black trousers. Arms raised in triumph, putter in left hand, right foot raised ever-so-slightly above the putting surface. The unburdened roar.
Woods’ reaction after draining the winning putt only lasted a few seconds, but the images will hang in bars and basements, dens and clubhouses for decades.
They will tell an unfathomably complicated story: The Comeback.
25 feet from the pin
USA TODAY Sports photographer Rob Schumacher had three cameras with him in the jam-packed golfer’s left box, an area roped off for media on the 18th green at Augusta National, about 25 feet from the pin.
He was on his knees checking to make sure all the exposures were set. He was trying to make sure he didn’t block anyone else’s shot. An Augusta National member was just off his right elbow and he was trying to make sure he didn’t interfere with anyone wearing a green jacket.
Sergio Garcia was facing the opposite box, on the right side of the green, when he gave the biggest reaction following his victory in 2017.
Schumacher remembered thinking that was unusual, so he decided to stick with the golfer’s left box. All he could do was hope that Woods would turn his direction after he tapped in the winning putt.
Woods’ reaction was so subdued at first that Schumacher thought he might not show any emotion at all in the moments following his 15th career major victory.
“His back is to me and I’m thinking he’s not going to move and he’ll be facing the golfer’s right box,” Schumacher said. “So he made his putt. Slowly walked forward. Picked his ball up then faces toward the center of the green and I thought well, he’s not going to react. Then he slowly rotates counter clockwise and steps towards me in my box.”
Schumacher later realized this all unfolded in a matter of seconds, but it felt like an eternity while waiting to see if he would be able to get any sort of shot at all. Let alone the shot.
Normally he would have preferred a wide-frame shot, but he went close on Woods thinking he might be able to capture some sort of facial expression or emotion in his subdued celebration.
Then Woods let it all out, and Schumacher knew he had the proper angle on one of the most historic moments in Masters history.
“I can’t believe he turned 180 degrees and he’s giving it up to our side,” Schumacher thought. “I had all the cameras set up properly just before Tiger walked up to the green and that paid off. I’m not shooting automatic. I’m shooting manual. I can’t deal with the thought of the camera messing up an exposure. I would rather mess it up.”
The perfect spot, again
He didn’t have time to check his work after Woods walked off the green. Schumacher walked as quickly as he could behind Woods, mindful of Augusta’s strict no-running policy, and suddenly found himself in the perfect spot for the second time that day.
“There he is celebrating with his family and friends and agents and all of the sudden I was in the middle of it all, just shooting,” Schumacher said. “In no time I’m being shoved in the chest by a CBS handler and my only thought was, ‘Well, I can’t believe we’re seeing his family here and that I’m in the middle of this. Gosh, I hope the exposures are correct.”
In that moment Schumacher was able to capture the raw emotion of Woods hugging long-time friend and confidant Rob McNamara, spokesperson Glenn Greenspan and son Charlie.
When he finally got back to the media center to review his images, he had another thought.
“Boy, did I get lucky.”
He also knew he’d been good and prepared, and he chose the correct box from which to shoot near the green.
One of his shots ran above the fold on the front page of Monday’s USA TODAY and Schumacher certainly had an appreciation of his role capturing history.
— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) April 15, 2019
His father, Phil, was a golf professional and managed several courses in Phoenix. He passed away years ago, but Schumacher always thinks about him every time he steps foot on the course at Augusta National. And he paused for a bit when asked what Phil would have thought about everything that happened Sunday.
“He would have liked that moment,” Schumacher said.