AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | The smile still explodes with an electric familiarity even if the hairline has made a hasty retreat. At times, as Tiger Woods searched for the answers in the Masters interview room to questions both obvious and obscure, his eyes showed the world-weary wisdom of age, answers now much more measured.
This was the 22nd time Tiger has made the drive down Magnolia Lane at Augusta National Golf Club to compete in this tournament and, as Sam says to Ilsa before singing As Time Goes By in Casablanca, “Lot of water under the bridge.”
Woods, in many ways, personifies the magical ability of Augusta National and the Masters to have one foot firmly planted in the past while the other steps forward into the future. Some of golf’s greatest traditions come wrapped in a green jacket. So do many of its most impactful innovations.
As Woods spoke, it was obvious how much had changed since a tremendously talented 21-year-old won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes in golf’s greatest palindrome – 12 at 21. His age, his margin of victory, his demeanor heralded a new era in the game.
The 14.1 television rating for that Sunday’s final round is a record that likely will match any of the others Tiger set that week. Considering his social impact and athletic achievement, I wrote at the time it was as if Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier and Babe Ruth’s home run record in the same season.
Woods is 43 now and his once supremely confident pre-tournament predictions of victory are now assessments of realistic expectations. Nearly 11 years since his last major victory, 14 years since slipping on his fourth green jacket and 18 years after the Tiger Slam, Woods remains an unfinished page in the history of the game.
None of us who care about golf can wait to find out what will be written on the next page by Tiger, just as the unquestioned success of the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur has enhanced our expectations of what will come next from Augusta National Golf Club.
From the green jacket to the Champions Dinner to the ceremonial tee shots, Augusta National is a place of wonderful tradition. But it is also a place of tremendous progress.
An argument can be made – in fact, it will be made, right here, right now, by me – that over the last decade, no entity in golf has been more impactful than Augusta National. Its leadership role in growing the game of golf is unquestioned.
In 2009, Han Chang-won of South Korea won the inaugural Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, earning a spot in the 2010 Masters. That began a tradition that opened a new door to not just the Masters for competitors but to fans from all over the Pacific Rim.
In 2013, Augusta National, along with the PGA of America and the USGA, created the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship for girls and boys ages 7 to 15, qualifying through local sites for the finals at Augusta National the Sunday before the Masters.
Then in 2015, Matias Dominguez of Chile won the inaugural Latin America Amateur Championship, earning a spot in the Masters and exposing the game to yet more new eyes.
And this year, when Jennifer Kupcho of the United States held off Maria Fassi of Mexico to win the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, the final round at Augusta National on the Saturday before the Masters scored the highest TV rating for an amateur event in 16 years.
Many years ago, when Tiger was creating space in his closet for more green jackets, I wrote that efforts to “Tigerproof” Augusta National were knee-jerk reactions to the rapid rise in how far modern players were hitting the golf ball.
That year, after the annual chairman’s press conference, Hootie Johnson, then chairman of Augusta National, took me aside and calmly said: “Nothing we do at Augusta National is knee-jerk.” Of course, I thought. He’s absolutely right. I was flip – and wrong.
Everything at Augusta National is done with an enormous amount of thought. I remembered that this week when, after a rainstorm, I walked up the hill to the clubhouse and could hear the gentle hum of the SubAir system, which would dry the course to the exact firmness and speed desired.
I thought of the tradition and history of the club when Tom Watson, an eight-time major winner who five times hoisted the Claret Jug and twice donned the Masters green jacket, stopped by the late Dan Jenkins’ seat to visit his shrine.
This morning, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player kick off the Masters with the ceremonial opening tee shots, one of golf’s great traditions. Last Saturday, a new tradition began when Nancy Lopez of the United States, Annika Sörenstam of Sweden, Lorena Ochoa of Mexico and Se Ri Pak of South Korea hit the opening shots at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.
From the green jacket to the Champions Dinner to the ceremonial tee shots, Augusta National is a place of wonderful tradition. But it is also a place of tremendous progress. As Tiger has changed, so has the National. And, unquestionably, both have left golf in a far better place.
Surrounded by fans, Tiger Woods drives from the 14th tee in Monday’s practice round for the Masters. Photo: Mike Segar, Reuters
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