3 and a half days that changed the world
Every golfer has their one event which captivates them most. For some, it is the Ryder Cup.
Others are taken in by the enduring history of the Open. Perhaps for you, it is your local club championship which gets the juices flowing most.
Since I opened my eyes, it’s always been about the Masters – perhaps largely due to my father’s obsession with the tournament.
Studying the contours from pictures, reading up on the history, learning Augusta’s hole names, and becoming intimately familiar with the traditions of the year’s premier major accounted for significant amounts of my free time, so when Dad was fortunate enough to be invited to the Masters in 1997, it was an experience I lived vicariously through him.
Having watched the coverage on the Thursday night – a late one for a 10-year old kid – I was transfixed. But it became apparent when excitedly chatting with my father the next morning how much we as television viewers had missed.
He had positioned himself near the 6th green on the first day, a par three which doesn’t usually cause undue harm to the players, albeit that it had a two-tier green.
However, in anticipation of rain that week, the greens had been cut lower than usual. So when a dry wind showed up on the Thursday instead, the back-right pin placement suddenly proved treacherous.
It was akin to putt-putt, as, one after the other, players would find the front of the green, putt the ball up to within a foot or two of the hole, and then see their balls start rolling back; and back, until it ended up right back at their feet.
Three putts were standard practice, four putts were regular, and there were even a handful of five putts. Those who finished behind the flag with their tee shot were even worse off, effectively playing pinball, with no price of stopping the ball once it passed the hole.
The sixth was the worst affected given its relative exposure to the winds, but all the greens were breathtakingly quick and hazardous in equal measure. But one man who did not three putt on the sixth hole that day was a 21-year-old Tiger Woods. In fact, he didn’t three putt that entire week.
By 1997, he was already a prodigy, who drew in enormous crowds. But it was that week in which he really announced himself to the golfing world.
Incredibly, it all started so poorly too. The radar on his driver appeared to be malfunctioning, and he carded bogeys at 1, 4, 8 and 9 en route to an outward nine of 40 on the first day.
But something happened as he walked to the 10th tee. As he chronicles in a new book being released next week (in collaboration with Lorne Rubenstein to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his win), he fixed his swing and his mind in those mere few minutes.
He realised he was swinging too long. He realised he was coming in too hot with his putts, and that the six-inch tap was at a premium. And he realised that he didn’t have to make up for what had happened over the first nine holes.
He just had to recapture the feeling from the week before, when he’d fired a 59 with his buddy Mark O’Meara in Florida.
Interestingly, Woods had played at Augusta six times previously as an amateur, and never once broken par. But after bludgeoning a 2 iron up the 10th fairway, and subsequently holing out from 18 feet for birdie, he never looked back.
He fired a 30 coming home for an opening-round 70, and although he sat three strokes adrift of leader John Huston, the crowds patrons could sense that the winds of change were upon them. Not just in the context of that week’s Masters. But in golf as they knew it.
Following Woods’s 66 on Friday, he had a halfway-lead of three. The two Goliaths of the game who’d slugged it out the year before, Greg Norman and Nick Faldo, sat 15 and 20 strokes adrift respectively, missing the cut. Something big was happening.
Saturday was an exhibition of the most extraordinary kind though. Conditions remained dry and windy, and the field wilted. Woods, on the other hand, carved out a bogey-free 65. His lead trebled to nine. It was scarcely believable golf. Who was this guy? Did he even need a bridge to walk across Rae’s Creek, or could he walk on water too?
Colin Montgomerie, Woods’s playing partner for the day who’d slumped to a 74, said it best about the prospects of Woods relinquishing his lead: “There is no chance. We're all human beings here. There's no chance humanly possible.
"This is very different (to last year). Faldo's not lying second, for a start. And Greg Norman's not Tiger Woods."
The last round was little more than a parade; a victory lap in Woods’s honour. But if it was meant to be a cruisy afternoon, the champion-elect clearly didn’t get the memo.
There was some jockeying behind him for second place, but he wasn’t interested in all that. He wanted the records: to shoot the lowest four-round score, and to win by the biggest margin. He got to the 18th three-under par for the day, 18 for the tournament, and 12 ahead of second-placed Tom Kite. 12!
The crowd wanted to high five their new hero. He was having none of it. A cameraman flashed too early, and he hooked his drive left. Tiger growled in disdain. But it didn’t stop him. He recovered, scuttled it up to within five feet for par, and even though there was no tournament pressure on him whatsoever, he had never wanted to hole a putt more. The outcome was never in doubt.
The trademark fist pump followed. An embrace for caddie Fluff. A hug for father Earl. And a place in history that exceeded even his own lofty expectations, just four months after he’d become old enough to drink alcohol.
“If I didn’t have a family, the plane could crash now and I could die happy,” dad told me to my astonishment, on a bad phone line after the event. It’s been twenty years now, so I wouldn’t want to misquote him, but I also recall phrases such as “the tectonic plates have shifted!”, “he didn’t three putt once!” and “this guy will break every record in sight for the next 20 years!”
As it turned out, it was only 12 years of dominance that ensued, and the record Woods cares most about is now a distant dream. But it is testament to his legacy that, even eight years since his decline began, we still hang onto his every word, swing and back spasm, hopeful that the memories of his glory years can be even vaguely recreated.
April 1997 was the genesis of it all: the week the ground shifted beneath our feet. Woods’s fellow players felt it even before it happened. And they still feel it now. That thing they call aura. But the kind that is completely unique to Tiger Woods – 20 years after it all began.