Class of ’97

How Tiger’s 12-stroke win 20 years ago changed the Masters and golf.

Golf Digest (Malaysia) - - Contents - BY TOM CAL­LA­HAN

Ev­ery­body re­mem­bers how it ended, but no­body can say ex­actly when it be­gan.

Some start the clock the week be­fore the 1997 Masters, when, play­ing a prac­tice round with Mark O’Meara, Tiger Woods shot 59 at Isle­worth while ne­glect­ing to birdie two of the par 5s. On the plane ride to Au­gusta from Or­lando, the friends got to talk­ing:

“Do you think it’s pos­si­ble to win the Grand Slam?” 21-year-old Woods asked 40-year-old O’Meara, then 0 for 54 in ma­jor cham­pi­onships. Mark looked at Tiger and thought, You’re the first guy since Nick­laus even to ask the ques­tion, but didn’t say that out loud. “Un­re­al­is­tic,” O’Meara replied af­ter a long mo­ment. “I think it’s pos­si­ble,” Woods said.

The tour­na­ment it­self—72 holes as im­pact­ful as any ever played—com­menced April 10 and cli­maxed April 13, 20 years ago, kick­ing off on a blowy Thurs­day when fly­ing pine nee­dles punc­tured the air and the first 30 play­ers were im­me­di­ately whooshed over par. Three vic­to­ries into his pro ca­reer, but still the holder of the U.S. Am­a­teur ti­tle, Woods was paired, per tra­di­tion, with the de­fend­ing cham­pion, Nick Faldo. Tiger went out in 40. So, the story might open with his come­back, the birdie at 10, or per­haps with some­thing that hap­pened the day be­fore, Seve Balles­teros’ 40th birth­day, when Woods played half a prac­tice round along­side Balles­teros and Jose Maria Olaz­a­bal. Break­ing off from the Spa­niards to try “a few lit­tle things” Seve had showed him, Tiger said that even­ing, “He’s amaz­ing around the greens. There are some things you can learn only from an­other player.”

On the prop­erty but not in the gallery, pre­fer­ring to watch on tele­vi­sion, Earl Woods saw Tiger chip in at 12 to re­vive his first round. Be­ing more sen­ti­men­tal than his son, Earl won­dered if that wasn’t one of those lit­tle strokes of ge­nius cour­tesy of Seve. “C’mon, Pop,” Tiger chided him later, “don’t get car­ried away.”

Re­cu­per­at­ing from open-heart surgery, Earl was nap­ping on the couch at the house they were rent­ing in Au­gusta, and Tiger was re­luc­tant to stir him. “Daddy,” he whis­pered fi­nally, which star­tled Earl. Tiger al­most never called him that any­more. “How do you like my stroke?”

“I don’t,” Earl replied in that dead­pan, singsong voice that some­times made Tiger laugh, but not this time. “What’s wrong with it?” “Your right hand is break­ing down just slightly on the takeaway.”

Earl went to bed and Tiger con­tin­ued putting on the car­pet.

They were sit­ting to­gether the year be­fore—or maybe it was the year be­fore that—at the Golf Digest house in Au­gusta, bal­anc­ing pa­per plates of bar­be­cue and beans on their knees, eavesdropping on a dis­cus­sion of Opens and In­vi­ta­tion­als in golf. “In­vi­ta­tion­als,” Tiger said un­der his breath, not bit­terly, just mat­ter-of-factly, “were the ways around the Opens.”

Largely de­pend­ing on how much home­work he brought from Stan­ford, Woods made and missed his two am­a­teur cuts at Au­gusta. Stay­ing un­der a sun-streaked cupola in a club­house gar­ret known as the Crow’s Nest, Tiger was un­able to sleep (“I’ve never been any good at sleep­ing,” he said), get­ting up in the mid­dle of the night to prowl the un­fa­mil­iar cor­ri­dors and com­mune with the well-known ghosts. “The shad­ows there roll all around the walls,” he said. “That at­tic is haunted.”

Afraid to switch on any lights, Tiger stum­bled into what turned out to be the Cham­pi­ons Locker Room. He sat in the dark in front of 1956 win­ner Jackie Burke’s locker and re­viewed the jour­ney.

Woods was born in 1975, the year Lee El­der broke the four-decade-long color line at the Masters. In 1974, chair­man Clif­ford Roberts greeted the press with the hope that for­mer Au­gusta cad­die Jim Dent would soon win a PGA Tour event and be­come el­i­gi­ble to play in the tour­na­ment, a cri­te­rion es­tab­lished in 1972.

Roberts and Bobby Jones might not have been any more big­oted than the av­er­age Amer­i­can born in 1894 or 1902, but nei­ther was a cham­pion of af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion. They weren’t alone in that. The Pro­fes­sional Golfers’ As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica didn’t scrub the hate­ful phrase “pro­fes­sional golfers of the Cau­casian race” out of its Con­sti­tu­tion un­til 1961, mak­ing the sad­dest line in a me­dia guide this one af­ter Char­lie Sif­ford’s name: “turned pro­fes­sional-1948; joined PGA Tour-1961.”

Of course, Masters cham­pi­ons as a group could have in­vited Sif­ford or any­one else to com­pete in the tour­na­ment—they con­trolled one slot. In 1969, when 46-year-old Sif­ford fol­lowed up his Greater Hart­ford Open ti­tle of a cou­ple of years ear­lier by win­ning the Los An­ge­les Open (the same day the Jets beat the Colts in the Su­per Bowl), ’59 Masters cham­pion Art Wall Jr. tried mar­shal­ing sup­port for Sif­ford among his col­leagues. Char­lie re­ceived just a soli­tary vote: Wall’s.

El­der came to the 1997 Masters on Sun­day, by which time ev­ery­one knew what was about to hap­pen, be­cause he wanted to be there. Sif­ford did not come be­cause he didn’t want to be there. He sent Tiger a fax, though: “Don’t fire at all the pins. Be cau­tious. Be smart. Play the golf course. But when the time comes, let it go. Turn it loose. Be strong. Be your­self.”

a boost and a dig from marko

Woods fol­lowed the chip-in at 12 on Thurs­day with a birdie at the par-5 13th to get back to one over. He parred 14, and then, in a pileup of two­somes, reached the tee at the par-5 15th, where O’Meara was just ahead of him in the queue.

Tiger’s tight­est bond on tour was with the Florida neigh­bor he called “Marko,” whose wife, Ali­cia, told her hus­band, “That poor kid is sit­ting over there in his house all alone. Let’s get him over here for din­ner.” Mark said, “Tiger had a nice car he hadn’t washed in about a year. I called him up and said, ‘Bring that filthy thing over here, will you? I’m do­ing my cars. I’ll wash it. I’ll wax it.’ ” That was the be­gin­ning of their friend­ship.

“Marko be­came a big brother to me,” Woods said. “He taught me a lot of off-the-course things, or tried to. Some of those things, like how to deal with the me­dia, didn’t com­pletely take. But I wouldn’t have ever had the suc­cess I had early on with­out his help.”

On a small wood bench at the 15th tee, Tiger took a seat to wait out the de­lay, and O’Meara joined him. Noth­ing was said for about a minute. The week be­fore, as Mark was hand­ing over the $65 he lost to the 59, Tiger had ragged him, in their usual way, “Geez, Mark, what did you shoot, around 87?” Now, in what amounted to a de­layed re­join­der, O’Meara said in mock ex­as­per­a­tion, “Why don’t you just pre­tend you’re play­ing against me? I’m still wait­ing for you to play bad against me.”

Tiger ea­gled 15 (his sec­ond shot was a mere pitch­ing wedge to six feet). He was un­der par. Then he birdied 17. The 40 had been over­turned by a 30 to get him within three strokes and two play­ers of John Hus­ton’s lead. Faldo said, “Al­though I had played part of a prac­tice round with Tiger in 1995, now I truly un­der­stood what all the ex­cite­ment was about. He was quite some­thing.”

“Nick and I talk more than you’d think on a golf course,” Woods said, “or more than he does with most peo­ple, I hear. I don’t know if it’s just me, but he has things to say [though not this week, 75-81, miss­ing the cut]. You know, just briefly. Just com­fort­ably. He’s a good guy to play with.”

Fri­day, Tiger traded Faldo for Paul Azinger, who was also op­er­at­ing mainly on hearsay. “I’d never seen him hit a shot in per­son,” Azinger said, and be­ing im­mersed in his own dou­ble bo­gey at 1, Paul still had not seen Woods make a live strike un­til Tiger’s drive at the par-5 sec­ond.

“The sen­sa­tion was kind of oth­er­worldly,” Zinger said. “I mean, he hit this bul­let, tak­ing this ridicu­lous line down the left be­tween this re­ally tall tree and a shorter one. The ball just went ex­tra fast and kept climb­ing. It stayed in the air for­ever, un­til it fi­nally dis­ap­peared down the hill to some spot where prob­a­bly no one had ever been be­fore.” Azinger and his cad­die just looked at each other and laughed.

Tiger shot 66 that day (to 73 for Paul). At 13, Woods made an­other ea­gle (with an 8-iron to 20 feet), and Jim Nantz, a tele­caster with a sense of his­tory, told CBS side­kick Ken Ven­turi, “Kenny, let the record show, a lit­tle af­ter 5:30 on this Fri­day, April 11, Tiger takes the lead for the very first time in the Masters.”

At day’s end, Woods led Scots­man Colin Mont­gomerie by three strokes, and said good­bye to Azinger and hello to Monty.

Also known as Mrs. Doubt­fire and Billy Bunter, Mont­gomerie man­aged to win eight Or­ders of Merit and still be the lead­ing tar­get for ir­rev­er­ence on the Euro­pean Tour. Ap­ple-cheeked and curly-haired, he was the Ger­ber baby all grown up. Bri­tish schoolboy “Billy Bunter” is a U.K. car­toon char­ac­ter, ob­nox­ious, cor­pu­lent (par­tic­u­larly en­am­ored of sticky buns), ob­tuse, self­im­por­tant, con­ceited and pos­i­tive that he is al­ways right.

“The pres­sure is mount­ing,” Mont­gomerie said Fri­day night, “and I have a lot more ex­pe­ri­ence in ma­jor cham­pi­onships.”

“That def­i­nitely mo­ti­vated me,” Woods said. “He had more ex­pe­ri­ence [in ma­jors], no doubt about that. [Ev­ery­one did; this was Tiger’s first as a pro.] But he hadn’t won a ma­jor, and nei­ther had I. If some­one who had won ma­jor cham­pi­onships had said

‘there’s no chance hu­manly pos­si­ble that tiger is go­ing to lose this tour­na­ment. no way.’ — colin mont­gomerie, af­ter shoot­ing 74 to woods’ 65 in the third round

that, then I would have let it pass. But since he hadn’t won one ei­ther, I thought we were on a clean slate.”

Tiger shot 65 this time, to 74 for Mont­gomerie, who at the back door of the in­ter­view room was of­fered a dis­pen­sa­tion but in­sisted on tes­ti­fy­ing. It would be the most ap­peal­ing ap­pear­ance of his ma­jor-less ca­reer.

“All I have to say,” he said with a chas­tened smile, “is one brief com­ment to­day. There is no chance. We’re all hu­man be­ings here . . . [but] there’s no chance hu­manly pos­si­ble that Tiger is go­ing to lose this tour­na­ment. No way.”

Prob­a­bly think­ing of the 11-shot swing be­tween Greg Nor­man (“Dead Man Walk­ing”) and Faldo only 12 months be­fore, some­one asked, “What makes you say that?”

“Have you just come in?” Mont­gomerie replied with a sigh. “Have you been away? Have you been on hol­i­day?”

Monty knew that Woods hit the ball “long and straight.” He was aware that Tiger’s iron shots were “very ac­cu­rate.” But he had no idea that any­one could putt like this. “When you add it all to­gether,” he said, “Tiger is nine shots clear [of Ital­ian Costantino Rocca], and I’m sure that will be higher to­mor­row.”

Af­ter all, “Faldo is not ly­ing sec­ond,” and “Greg Nor­man is not Tiger Woods.”

fin­ish­ing the race

Muham­mad Ali, on his off nights, could look a lit­tle blotchy. In the ring be­fore the open­ing bell, his com­plex­ion some­times tipped what was to come. But against Ge­orge Fore­man in Africa, stand­ing alone in one cor­ner, wait­ing out Zaire’s in­ter­minable an­them, Ali gleamed like a cop­per ket­tle. That’s what Tiger looked like Sun­day morn­ing.

Late the night be­fore, as they shared a bowl of ice cream, Earl ad­vised his son, “This is go­ing to be the hard­est round of golf you’ll ever play, and the most re­ward­ing.”

“When I ar­rived,” said El­der, who was 62, “Tiger had just left the prac­tice range. I told him, ‘Just do what you’ve been do­ing all week, and things will work out.’ Em­brac­ing Lee, Woods whis­pered, “Thanks for mak­ing this pos­si­ble.” Then, on his way from the prac­tice putting green to the first tee, he prod­ded him­self: Fin­ish the race. For the next four hours, Tiger rethought those three words over and over.

Sun­day’s score was a pru­dently com­mer­cial 69, nearly risk-free if you don’t count the nar­rowly avoided calamity of a small boy in the gallery who reached up for Woods in the

mid­dle of a fe­ro­cious swing. And yet, the lead swelled by three strokes. The Masters record of 271 by Nick­laus (1965) and Ray­mond Floyd (’76) was trimmed by a shot, and the run­nerup, Tom Kite, lost by 12. Only Old Tom Mor­ris had ever won a ma­jor by as much as 13, in the 1862 Open Cham­pi­onship at Prest­wick, Scot­land. (Young Tom won one by 12.) In his pro­fes­sional de­but, Woods was al­ready reach­ing back to shep­herds and crooks.

First in driv­ing dis­tance (323.1 yards on av­er­age, a full 25 yards be­yond the next-best, Scott McCar­ron); tied for first in greens in reg­u­la­tion (with Kite and Fred Funk, 55 of 72); and record­ing zero three­p­utts, Tiger shook the very ge­om­e­try of golf, push­ing not just the en­ve­lope but the bound­aries, the ca­pac­i­ties, of the Na­tional. His nor­mal ap­proach clubs weren’t nor­mal: no. 1 400-yard par 4: driver, pitch­ing wedge. no. 2 555-yard par 5: driver, 8-iron. no. 3 360-yard par 4: driver, 15-yard chip. no. 4 205-yard par 3: 6-iron. no. 5 435-yard par 4: driver, pitch­ing wedge. no. 6 180-yard par 3: 9-iron. no. 7 360-yard par 4: 2-iron, pitch­ing wedge. no. 8 535-yard par 5: driver, 2-iron. no. 9 435-yard par 4: 3-wood, pitch­ing wedge. no. 10 485-yard par 4: 2-iron, 8-iron. no. 11 455-yard par 4: driver, pitch­ing wedge. no. 12 155-yard par 3: pitch­ing wedge. no. 13 485-yard par 5: driver, 8-iron. no. 14 405-yard par 4: driver, pitch­ing wedge. no. 15 500-yard par 5: driver, pitch­ing wedge. no. 16 170-yard par 3: 9-iron. no. 17 400-yard par 4: 3-wood, sand wedge. no. 18 405-yard par 4: driver, sand wedge.

Eleven wedges into 18 greens, and ev­ery par 5 reach­able in two.

Rocca said, “He hit a 6-iron into the wind [at the par-3 fourth] when I hit a 1-iron, and his drive was so long at 8, he had only a 4-iron to the green. He pulled it a lit­tle left, and, again with the 4-iron, hit a low, run­ning shot to two feet for birdie. Two 4-irons in a row. Very dif­fer­ent.” (Rocca shot 75, but his long day of hear­ing “Down in front!” wasn’t wasted. Come Septem­ber, at Valder­rama in Spain, the Euro­peans would beat the Amer­i­cans in an­other Ry­der Cup, and Costantino would de­feat Woods in the sin­gles, 4 and 2.)

To Tiger, how he had won the ’97 Masters wasn’t a bit com­pli­cated. “The ma­jor­ity of my putts were up­hill,” he said, “be­cause I was able to con­trol my irons into the greens. Why was I able to do that? Be­cause I had short irons into the greens. Why did I have those short iron shots? Be­cause I drove the ball great. And putting was just a re­flec­tion of every­thing work­ing, from the tee box to the green. Or from the green to the tee box, if you think about it. My dad al­ways taught me to think ev­ery golf course back­ward.”

Tiger climbed up the hill from the 18th green straight into Earl’s arms. “My fa­vorite shot of the day,” Pres­i­dent Clin­ton said on the tele­phone, “was that last shot with your dad.”

At his home in King­wood, Texas, Sif­ford said, “It put the Masters to rest for me. You know, it’s 50 years [prac­ti­cally to the day] since Jackie Robin­son broke base­ball’s color line. When­ever Tiger tips his cap on the golf course, I con­sider that to be recog­ni­tion to the un­rec­og­nized. And, when he hugged his daddy at the end, I shed a few tears. Watch­ing Tiger walk up the fi­nal hole, I felt like I was part of him. He did what I wanted to do but didn’t have the chance—I was too dog­gone old. Start­ing out, I wanted four things: to play in a PGA tour­na­ment, to play in a Na­tional Open, to be in­ducted into the Hall of Fame, and to play in the Masters. I got three out of the four, so that ain’t too bad.”

More than 44 mil­lion peo­ple watched on tele­vi­sion, the big­gest TV au­di­ence ever counted for a golf tour­na­ment. Away from the golf, a ma­jor and a mi­nor tragedy hung over the grounds. When the price of scalped badges shot up to $7,000 apiece, lo­cal busi­ness­man Allen F. Cald­well III couldn’t make good on 70 tick­ets he had promised some big shots. He killed him­self with a 12-gauge shot­gun.

Nine­teen-seventy-nine Masters and 1984 U.S. Open cham­pion Fuzzy Zoeller, try­ing to be funny for a tele­vi­sion crew, warned Woods off serv­ing fried chicken at the next Cham­pi­ons Din­ner. “Or col­lard greens,” Zoeller said, “or what­ever the hell they serve.”

(“My Tiger have no idea what col­lard greens are,” his mother, Tida, said.)

Zoeller’s mor­tal sin was the word “they.” That was some­thing in­side Fuzzy, or around him, or around all of us, that just slipped out. (It’s al­ways slip­ping out, isn’t it?) That cost a pretty good guy a con­tract with Kmart and a legacy of laugh­ter.

In the But­ler Cabin (not named for the but­lers), Faldo helped Tiger into the green jacket, the first of four. Woods would have big­ger and bet­ter tour­na­ments, be­lieve it or not, but none as im­por­tant. At the 2000 U.S. Open, when Tiger won by 15 strokes, Old Tom’s ma­jor mark of 13 wasn’t the only thing that fell. Every­thing tum­bled that week at Peb­ble Beach. Wil­lie Smith, Wil­lie An­der­son and Long Jim Barnes sur­ren­dered records to Tiger that they had held for 101, 97 and 79 years.

It was the his­tory of the Masters, as dark as the Cham­pi­ons Locker Room in the mid­dle of the night, that made 1997 more im­por­tant. Also, the green jacket is a more tac­tile prize than the largest sil­ver lov­ing cup.

Back at the rented house, cel­e­brat­ing with friends and fam­ily, Earl went look­ing for Tiger and found him in his bed­room asleep (“I’ve never been any good at sleep­ing”) fully clothed with his arms wrapped around the green jacket. “Cud­dling it,” as Tiger said, “like it was a lit­tle bear.”

And, a year later, he put it on Mark O’Meara.

punc­tu­at­ing the record with a fist pump at the 72nd hole.

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