Masterful Masters: Tiger Woods’ 1997 majors breakthrough
AUGUSTA, Ga. — His son was in the middle of a Sunday afternoon back-nine test, fearlessly plowing through golf’s most revered course with preternatural poise.
Earl Woods knew the coronation was coming.
At that point any anxiety his 21-year-old son Tiger may have had about playing his first major championship as a professional had been transformed into an assassin’s focus. And with the younger Woods breaking record after record as well as the spirit of the other 85 competitors who started the Masters that week, Earl sat near a monitor beside Augusta National’s 18th green and watched history unfold.
Slowed by recent heart surgery, Earl couldn’t tail Tiger’s triumph the way an enthralled and massive gallery did. But he was appreciating the achievement more than anybody.
“Truly magnificent,” Earl said on the TV broadcast. “This is a culmination of a lot of hard work, years and years of training (and) dreams. And it now has turned into reality.”
Perhaps Woods’ 18-under score of 270 and his instantly legendary 12-shot victory at that 1997 Masters was indeed the culmination of all the investment that came before. But it was also, in many ways, a launching point. An arrival. A history-changing breakthrough.
As Sports Illustrated noted just a few days later, it was “the week everything changed in golf.”
It was the start of a 13-season run in which Woods would win 69 tournaments, including 14 majors. It was the week golf’s popularity exploded, gaining an element of cool across several generations.
It was the week a multi-racial prodigy dominated the most prestigious tournament of a sport that for so long had been segregated.
And to think …
On the eve of the ’97 Masters, as the Tiger hype continued to swell, some were looking to quell the mania with a blast of reality: Let the kid prove something first. So with unabashed skepticism the Tribune listed five reasons Woods would leave his first Masters as a pro disappointed.
Possible distraction could be a factor, the theory went, with Woods under heavy criticism for foul language he had used and dirty jokes he had told in a GQ article.
A lack of experience was also a handicap. Only one player in history ever won the first major he played as a professional: Jerry Pate at the 1976 U.S. Open, his lone major victory.
And besides, Woods’ track record at Augusta to that point had been far from stellar, his 1996 cameo as an amateur producing identical rounds of 75 and a Friday evening “MC” exit.
Surmised 1996 green jacket winner Nick Faldo: “There’s a learning curve playing Augusta.”
But what did Faldo know? What did anyone know?
Woods, it turned out, had destiny in his bag. He bombed drives and dropped clutch putts. He shook off four early bogeys en route to an opening-round 70 and followed with a 66 in Round 2 to take a three-stroke lead into the weekend.
And then he aggressively slammed his foot onto the gas, igniting a seven-birdie charge on moving day at the Masters, his impressive lead quickly becoming insurmountable — nine strokes after 54 holes.
What is often an enlivened orchestra of roars erupting from everywhere within the Augusta National pines became a captivating solo act that weekend.
“For only Tiger was happening,” the Tribune’s Bob Verdi wrote. “With every hole, he attracted more spectators. It was as though he played alone, albeit before a captivated audience that swelled to 50,000.”
No one ever climbed within seven shots of Woods’ lead on Sunday. Tiger prowled on.
Among the on-course admirers was Cubs legend Ernie Banks, who immediately paralleled Woods’ transcendent triumph to the determined accomplishments of Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis.
“The impact Tiger has on the public is the same,” Banks said. “He generates self-esteem, a self-confidence, an attitude that penetrates all around him. I talked with a lot of kids at this event, and Tiger makes them feel good about themselves.
“He makes them think they can do the same thing someday.”
Dreams, as Earl Woods noted, had been realized. But they also were being created anew.
Woods began his 20th Masters this week at Augusta. He’s now 39, mired in a seven-year funk without a major championship and returning to competition after yet another long layoff and another agonizing back injury.
While the final pages of his legacy remain blank, a captivated audience is eager to see how everything turns out. But the earliest chapter of Tiger’s Masters excellence remains indelible, his landmark impact on the tournament and the sport still obvious.
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