There was a time, long before the multiple swing changes, the wounded knee, the 14 major championships, the humiliating scandal and divorce, and the ensuing crisis in confidence, when Tiger Woods knew exactly what was wrong with his golf game. Even better, he could adjust it on his own, with the seemingly simplest of tweaks, even as he was making the turn in the first round of his first major championship as a professional athlete.
The date was April 10, 1997, and Woods, only 21 and less than a year removed from his sophomore year at Stanford, had come to Augusta National and The Masters with the same mindset as always. In a practice round back home in Orlando, he got a fortuitous jolt of confidence when he fired a 59 the Friday before the tournament. Never mind that he had finished 31st in his previous start two weeks earlier at The Players Championship and had not been in contention on the PGA Tour since finishing second at Pebble Beach in February.
“To be honest with you, I don’t care what anybody says, as always,” Woods said two days before the start of play. “I just came here to win. That’s what I’m going to do in every tournament. I’ll try to stay as patient as possible and gut it around. This time, I’m here as a professional. I didn’t take finals last week. I didn’t have to write any papers … I’m tournament tough, now.”
Still, there were skeptics, despite Woods’ awesome amateur résumé, despite two victories and three top-10 finishes in only eight starts the previous year, including a playoff triumph over Davis Love III in Las Vegas for his first title since turning pro in August 1996. After all, in his six previous Masters rounds as an amateur, he had never managed to break par.
“I think there’s a learning curve of playing Augusta and the discipline of playing the course,” defending champion and three-time Masters winner Nick Faldo said when asked about Woods’ chances. “When to hit the ball, when not to, when it’s great to make that par and walk away.”
Over Woods’ first nine holes in the opening round, with Faldo as his playing partner, the Englishman’s assessment seemed properly prophetic. But only for a while.
As thousands followed the marquee pairing, Woods began badly and by the time he walked off the ninth green, he had posted a 4-over 40 on the front. Woods seemed destined for disaster unless he and he alone could somehow figure out what had gone so horribly wrong.
And so he did.
It had dawned on him that he was taking the club almost parallel to the ground on his backswing – “way too long for me,” he would say later. On the 10th tee, he shortened it, with the perfect outcome on his first drive on the back nine.
He smashed a 2-iron down the middle of the downhill 10th hole, hit his second to 18 feet and made the birdie putt. At the par-3 12th, another birdie after he chipped into the hole from behind the green. He was on the 13th green with two perfectly struck shots at the 485-yard par 5 and settled for a two-putt birdie. Then, at the 500-yard 15th, it was another mighty drive and only a wedge – a wedge!!!! – to within four feet, and, of course, he made the eagle putt.
With a birdie-par finish, Woods had rescued his round from the abyss of a possible missed cut into a 2-under 70. He was only three shots behind first-round leader John Huston, who needed a holed out 5-iron from the fairway for an eagle at 18 to push in front of the field.
“I’ll take it,” Woods said. “I’m just glad to get through this round considering what I was fighting on the front. It’s nice to find something deep within yourself to pull through.”
On Friday, Woods stalked the gorgeous grounds of Augusta National with the look, the swagger and the game of a young man poised to make history. On a cool, cloudy afternoon he will always remember as the day he led one of golf’s four majors for the first time, he threw a 66 at the field, the day’s best round. He pushed to the top of the board when he eagled No. 13, hitting an 8-iron to within 20 feet and making the putt. At 13, Huston already had tumbled in full free-fall after an ugly 10. Woods followed that eagle with birdies at 14 and 15 and parred in from there for a three-shot, 36-hole lead over Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie, in with a 67.
“When I’m in the lead or near the lead, I don’t know how to describe it,” Woods exulted afterward on a day when he hit 13 of 14 fairways and nearly drove the 360-yard third hole. “It’s what I came here to do.”
Montgomerie was properly impressed, but hardly convinced the kid could keep it up.
“If he decides to keep doing what he’s doing, more credit to him and we’ll all shake his hand and say ‘Well done,’” he said. “But there’s more to it than hitting the ball a long way, and the pressure’s mounting now, more and more.”
On Saturday, Woods remained relentless, with a spectacular 65 that opened a nine-shot spread and set a Masters record for the largest lead after three rounds. His 66-65 middle rounds marked the best 36-hole stretch ever. And at 15 under, he also tied the record low 54-hole score set by Raymond Floyd in 1976, leaving many in his teeming galleries, as well as his fellow competitors, slack-jawed and searching for superlatives.
And 24 hours after Montgomerie questioned whether Woods could stand up to the pressure, he got an up close and personal answer that his Saturday playing partner was impervious to it all.
“There is no chance that it is humanly possible that Tiger Woods will lose this tournament,” Montgomerie said. “No way. For a start, Faldo does not lie second, and Greg Norman is not like Tiger Woods.”
The year before, Norman, staggered to the greatest collapse in Masters history – a final-round 78 to finish second to Faldo by five. Twelve months later, it was Montgomerie who would wilt against Woods on a warm Saturday afternoon, melting down to a 74, falling 12 shots behind the lead.
With a 3-under 69 and a record four-day total of 18-under 270, Woods essentially completed an 18-hole victory march on his way to one of the most astonishing performances in the annals of the game. He beat his closest pursuer, veteran Tom Kite, by 12 shots, the largest major championship victory margin of the 20th century, three shots better than the old record of nine strokes set in 1965 by his childhood idol, Jack Nicklaus. His 72-hole score was a shot better than the old record of 271 shared by Nicklaus (1965) and Floyd (1976).
And, of course, he became the first African- American to win a major championship of golf, in a tournament that did not have its first black competitor until Lee Elder broke the color barrier there in 1975.
Elder had flown up from his south Florida home Sunday morning and was standing no more than 50 yards away when Woods arrived at the first tee for his final round. As Woods put his peg in the ground, the second floor balcony of the Augusta National clubhouse was mostly occupied by many of the people who worked there, men and women of color, some in white waiter jackets, a few still carrying the brooms and dust bins they used to keep the place immaculate for a club that had only two black members at the time.
As Woods prepared to hit his first shot, Elder had tears in his eyes when he said, “No one will turn their head when a black man walks to the first tee.”
As Woods came out of the Butler Cabin, where he was helped into his new green jacket by Faldo for the CBS cameras, he happened to spot Elder outside in the milling crowd.
“Thanks for making this possible,” he whispered in his ear before being swept along to his post-round interview in the media center where he also paid tribute to other black golfers who never had the opportunity to play in a Masters.
“I wasn’t the pioneer,” he said. “Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder and Ted Rhodes played that role. I thank them. I was thinking about them and what they’ve done for me. I said a little prayer and said thanks to those guys. You are the ones who did it for me.”
The youngest man ever to win The Masters, his drives averaged 323 yards, 25 yards longer than the second man on the list. The longest club he hit into a par-4 all week was a 7-iron. He led the field in putting. Each of the first two days, he hit a wedge into the 500-yard 15th hole. Since that front-nine 40 on Thursday – two shots higher than any previous Masters winner had ever started – he played his last 63 holes in 22 under.
Oh, yes, there was a time …