Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Tiger Woods and the Amazing 1997 Masters

It’s Masters week, the annual ritual of thrilling golf, whispered commentary, blooming magnolias, white-suited caddies, and “patrons” in Bermuda shorts. (For the sensitive souls who run Augusta National Golf Club, which has hosted the tournament since 1934, the “fans” is too redolent of beer-swilling frat boys.)

Twenty years ago this month, a young man named Tiger Woods blitzed his way around Augusta, taking down the other players, the racial prejudice that has long attended golf, and the very expectations of what was possible in the sport. The shock of his performance wasn’t merely in seeing a twenty-one-year-old phenom defeat the rest of the field by twelve shots, beating the previous record of nine shots that Jack Nicklaus had set in 1965. It was the preternaturally calm demeanor that Woods displayed, and the manner in which he dismantled a course that had long been regarded as one of the world’s most difficult.

Colin Montgomerie, who was then one of the leading golfers in the world, was paired with Woods on Saturday, the third day of the four-day tournament. Woods shot seven under par—“the easiest sixty-five I’ve ever seen,’’ Montgomerie called it recently. “From the second hole onwards, I thought, ‘Hang on a minute. This is something extraordinary,’ ” he said. “This is a game that I had not seen before, and none of us had.” On Sunday, Woods shot three under par, and on the back nine his round turned into a victory procession. “From the 13th to the 18th, the people supported him like crazy,” his playing partner Costantino Rocca recalled. “I don’t know if anyone remembered I was on the golf course. It was good for him, not for me.’’

For those who would like to see Woods’s victory again, or who were too young to see it the first time around, the Masters is streaming the original CBS Sports broadcast of Sunday’s final round on its Web site. To watch the three-hour tape is to be reminded of how green Augusta National is, how white the crowds were (and are to this day), and how young, talented, and self-assured Woods was.

On the video, you can see Woods standing on the tee at the famous par-five thirteenth hole. At that point, he had a ten-shot lead over his closest competitor that weekend, Tom Watson. Standing tall, a steel-shafted three wood in hands, Woods lashed the ball straight down the middle of the fairway and bent over to pick up his tee. “You couldn’t walk that out there any better than that,” the late Ken Venturi commented.

Before going after his ball, Woods flashed his caddie, Mike (Fluff) Cowan, a quick, close-mouthed smile—a smile of youth and limitless confidence. Although he was barely old enough to drink legally, Woods had already won three professional tournaments, and going into Augusta he believed he could triumph there. In fact, he expected to win. “There are a few tournaments throughout my career where I felt, ‘Just don’t screw it up,’ ” he told USA Today a couple of weeks ago. “That was one of them.”

With the advantage of a young, limber body and a free-flowing swing that generated tremendous club-head speed, Woods drove the ball thirty or forty yards farther than most other players. He was also a great iron player and a fabulous putter. When the three elements of his game came together, as they did that week at Augusta, he was unbeatable. On the fifteenth hole, after driving his tee shot three hundred and one yards, he arrowed a mid-iron over the creek in front of the green. The shot landed about twenty feet behind the hole, setting up a two-putt birdie that extended his lead to eleven shots. “How good does it get?” Venturi asked. “You don’t want to play him on holes like this, he’ll own you. And he’s owning everybody today.”

During the twelve and a half years that followed his Masters coming-out party, Woods won another sixty-six tournaments on the P.G.A. Tour, including thirteen more major championships. The members at Augusta, seeing what he had done to their beloved course, lengthened it considerably, laid down new rough, and planted trees in areas where previously there had been none. This effort to “Tiger-proof” Augusta didn’t prevent Woods from winning the Masters three more times. But, as other venues copied Augusta’s example, Woods’s 1997 victory changed the very game, creating the conditions for the rise of a generation of “bombers” who also hit the ball a mile—players like Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, and Jason Day.

by John Cassidy, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Gary Hershorn/Reuters/Alamy
[ed. Watching the video again, it's startling how much people age in 20 years.]