AUGUSTA, GA. It’s hard to imagine 20 years have passed since Tiger Woods emphatically altered the golf landscape with his masterful and utterly thorough 12-stroke victory for his first green jacket and remains to this day the youngest ever champion of the event.
It’s hard to comprehend the fact Woods will miss playing the Masters for the third time in four years. Even with winning the event four times — his last triumph at Augusta happened in ’05. It seems so long ago.
The ’97 win by Woods is on par with such all-time defining golf moments — Francis Ouimet’s 1913 US Open win over Harry Vardon and Ted Ray; the winning of the Grand Slam by Bobby Jones in 1930; and the epic return to the game’s pinnacle by Ben Hogan after returning from a near fatal car crash and winning the 2nd of four US Opens at Merion in 1950.
Woods turned pro late in ’96 and the Masters was his first major championship as a professional.
Skepticism remained among a number of tour players. How would the phenom do against competitively hardened professionals not in awe of what Woods accomplished against strictly amateur competition?
What’s amazing about Tiger’s triumph was that he did so after getting off to a poor start. Paired with ’96 champion Nick Faldo, Woods looked tentative in his early play and many wondered whether more seasoning would be needed.
Tiger proved undaunted even after playing the front nine in four-over-par 40 — what remains the worst start by any Masters champ by two strokes. The inward side featured Woods making four birdies and an eagle and finishing the round with a two-under-par 70 and only three shots off the lead.
In the next two rounds Woods scored the low round each day — firing 66 and 65 respectively and essentially creating a distance between him and the next player comparable to the gap Secretariat showed in winning the Triple Crown in 1973 by 28 lengths at the Belmont.
Amazingly, Woods had no three putts for the 72 holes — greens routinely notorious for inflicting pain for any stroke not played with total care and precision. Over the last 63 holes Woods scored an unfathomable twenty-two-under-par score. His four-round total of 270 broke the previous 271 mark set by Jack Nicklaus in 1965 and later tied by Ray Floyd in 1976. Only Jordan Spieth, the ’15 champion, has been able to tie the mark Woods set 20 years ago.
The symbolism of Woods winning in the South — the first black to win a major golf championship and doing it at Augusta National where former tournament chairman Clifford Roberts once said,” As long as I’m alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black.”
Woods demonstrated awesome power — averaging 323 yards — 25 yards longer than the next golfer. He routinely played the par-5 15th with a driver and pitching wedge.
Beyond the prowess showed by Woods on the course came the impressive reach of viewers watching the event. A record 15.2 rating and 32 share was nothing less than off the charts. In sum — the world of golf prior to ’97 Masters and the one that existed afterwards was completely turned on its head.
Woods showed golf could be a game open to minorities — that no ceiling could not be pushed aside. Interestingly, the Woods win came 50 years earlier when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball.
No matter if Tiger Woods ever hits another shot his win at Augusta National in’97 was a clear statement that the page had most certainly been turned. That a series of new chapters were about to be written and that Woods would be the most supremely talented sports star in all the world. To quote CBS announcer Jim Nantz upon Woods sinking his final putt at the 18th — his victory was “a win for the ages.” It was certainly that and then some.