It certainly seemed presumptuous at the time 20 years ago.
The 1997 Masters Tournament arrived and the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, who had never broken par in six tournament rounds at Augusta National Golf Club, was installed by oddsmakers as a favorite beside three-time winner and defending champion Nick Faldo and world No. 1 Greg Norman.
Tiger Woods was 21 and making his first major start as a professional, and he was all everyone was talking about. He had 15 PGA Tour events under his belt in the previous eight months, had made the cut in every one and won three of them.
“We were really aware because when Tiger came on tour most of the writers wouldn’t even give you the courtesy of asking one question,” said Faldo, who was at the time ranked No. 8 in the world and had won six weeks earlier at Riviera in what turned out to be his last career victory. “It was straight in, ‘What do you think of Tiger? What’s he gonna do?’ It was so total Tiger, it was unbelievable.
“To be honest, it was annoying. The attention was unbelievable. He’s used it in his favor. No player before had ever walked to the first tee with eight policemen around him to lead him to the tee. It was a whole different aura around him. It was amazing.”
It wasn’t just the media and golf fans talking up Woods. Jack Nicklaus, the greatest major champion of all time with 18 majors, had famously predicted that Woods might win more green jackets than him (6) and Arnold Palmer (4) combined.
Palmer supported that notion.
“I don’t think that there is anything to stop him from winning right here or anywhere else,” Palmer said when asked whether it was too soon to presume Woods might win the Masters.
Faldo, who won his third green jacket the year before and had battled Woods to a relative draw in the final round of the Players Championship two weeks earlier, wouldn’t dismiss it, though he did concede that it took him “a good half-dozen years” to get the gist of the course.
“I think there’s a learning curve of playing Augusta and the discipline of playing the golf course,” Faldo said. “When to hit the ball. When not. When to make that par and walk. It’s not impossible, but I think experience does help here.”
“It’d be a difficult draw for Tiger... Nick, I’m sure, is past the stage of worrying who he’s playing with. He’s his own man, we know that. He’ll get on with his own thing. But it will be interesting to see how Tiger copes with Nick defending and what have you.”
Woods missed his only career cut at Augusta in 1996 as an amateur, and even though he turned pro he would still start with Faldo in the traditional twosome pairing the reigning Masters and U.S. Amateur champions. There were more than a few who thought that might disqualify Woods’ chances from the jump.
“It’d be a difficult draw for Tiger,” world No. 3 Colin Montgomerie said on the eve of the tournament. “Nick, I’m sure, is past the stage of worrying who he’s playing with. He’s his own man, we know that. He’ll get on with his own thing. But it will be interesting to see how Tiger copes with Nick defending and what have you.”
Woods, of course, sang what would become a familiar refrain in the two decades since.
“I don’t care what anybody else says, as always,” Woods said. “I just came here to win.”
What happened in those four days 20 years ago changed what everyone believed was possible in golf.
Thursday, April 10
Scoring records were already on the minds of players in the first round, but not the positive kind. Until Paul Azinger walked into the clubhouse after 5 p.m. with 69, no player in the field had broken par. Thirteen players would shoot in the 80s, with four- and five-putts fairly common with pins stuck close to the edges on greens like glass.
“Is this a true test?” Phil Mickelson asked after shooting the field average of 76.
At 1:44 p.m., Faldo and Woods stepped into the breach, and their fates didn’t look much better. Woods struck a pose of disgust as he yanked his drive left into the trees off the first tee and started with a bogey. A poor chip cost him bogey at No. 4, and a couple more snapped drives added two more at Nos. 8 and 9, sending him to the 10th tee looking shell-shocked.
He went out in 40 to Faldo’s 41. The highest score previously posted on an opening nine by a Masters winner was 38.
“I was pretty hot at the way I was playing,” Woods said after the round. “I was just playing real defensive golf, and that’s not exactly what you want to do when you’re struggling. It was a tough day initially.”
Faldo, who shot 75-81 to miss the cut, doesn’t look back at the experience fondly.
“My memories aren’t great of that day because we both go out in 40 and you stand and look on every green and go, ‘Wow, these are a lot harder and a lot quicker than in practice,’” he said.
As the breeze quieted in the afternoon and the course got more accessible, Woods’ game transformed. He rolled in a 20-footer across the front of the 10th green for his first birdie.
His tee shot on the par-3 12th settled in the hollow behind the back left, but his 9-iron bump-and-run hit the pin and fell in for birdie. Woods raised both hands over his head before delivering a right-handed fist pump.
CBS host Jim Nantz recalls it as “the one shot that changed everything” after his jarring start.
“The way I analyzed it, he went out in 40, back in 30 and we didn’t see him for dust for another 14 years.”
The body language had all changed. Woods hit 6-iron into No. 13 for a two-putt birdie. He saved par with a 12-footer at the 14th. Then he bombed a drive and was able to hit pitching wedge from 151 yards into the par-5 15th, sticking it to 6 feet to make eagle and get into red figures for the first time at 1-under.
He hit a 60-degree wedge into No. 17 to set up another birdie from 15 feet and sending him to the 18th with a chance to tie the back-nine scoring record of 29 set by Mark Calcavecchia. But his 12-foot birdie try skirted the right edge of the cup and he settled for 2-under 70.
John Huston eagled No. 18 to post 67 before sunset, and Paul Stankowski shot 68 to bump Azinger into the second-to-last tee time with the fourth-place Woods. They would be the last people that Masters to spend a night ahead of him.
“The way I analyzed it, he went out in 40, back in 30 and we didn’t see him for dust for another 14 years,” Faldo said. “That was the start of Tiger and the start of his dominance. It was a special day. You go out in 40 and then you win by 12. That’s something pretty unique.”
Friday, April 11
Azinger hadn’t yet bought into all the hype. He’d squared off against Seve Ballesteros in Ryder Cups and topped Norman in a playoff to win the 1993 PGA Championship. He beat cancer three years earlier.
He wasn’t afraid of a kid making his major debut as a professional.
“Nobody took him serious in ’97,” Azinger said. “To me, I figured he’d be nervous playing with me. Why should I be nervous playing with him? He was 21. I didn’t even think about it.”
It was 2:29 p.m. when Woods and Azinger teed off against a course playing kinder and gentler than the day before. Woods split the fairway and strode off purposefully.
“The first tee shot, holy crap,” recalls Azinger, who ended up making double from the middle of the fairway on the first to immediately settle in Woods’ wake.
“He didn’t miss a putt inside 10 feet... If (he’s) going to drive it great and not miss a putt inside 10 feet, he is going to beat you.”
Woods made a short little chip-in for birdie on No. 2 and offset his lone bogey on No. 3 with birdies at Nos. 5 and 8 and a tidy par save at No. 9 to jump into a share of the lead with Colin Montgomerie.
Azinger was sold on what Woods called “strategic golf.” The strategy seemed pretty simple.
“He didn’t miss a putt inside 10 feet,” Azinger said. “If (he’s) going to drive it great and not miss a putt inside 10 feet, he is going to beat you.”
After Monty birdied the 15th to go two up, Woods sank a 25-foot eagle putt on the 13th to catch him. He backed it up by hitting sand wedge into No. 14 for a tap-in birdie and a pitching wedge into No. 15 for a two-putt birdie to take sole possession of the lead for good.
After shooting 66, Woods went directly to the range to hit two bags of balls before talking to the media.
“This is what I came here to do is try to win the tournament,” Woods said. “At the halfway point I’m in the lead, which is nice. But it’s only the halfway point. I have to go out tomorrow and shoot a good number because it’s moving day and just try to get myself in good shape going into Sunday.”
Before the second round, Earl Woods held court under the tree explaining how his son had taken control of the tournament the day before.
“He showed the course, ‘I’m not afraid of you. I can handle you. You better watch out,’” the elder Woods said.
Montgomerie, who sat in second three shots behind, wasn’t ready to receive Earl’s message.
“The pressure will be mounting on Mr. Woods,” Montgomerie said in a bit of gamesmanship. “I have a lot more experience in major golf than he has. Hopefully I can prove that through the weekend.”
Azinger, who shot 73 playing with Woods, still marvels at what he witnessed that day.
“He was unaffected by the magnitude of what he was trying to accomplish,” Azinger said. “That’s what struck me. He wants to play well way more than he is afraid of failing. … When people asked me about Tiger later in his career, (I would say) he wants it more than everybody else. That doesn’t mean we don’t want it. Best way to say it is this guy isn’t afraid. He’s less afraid of failure than anybody I’ve ever seen. As a result, he failed less often.”
Saturday, April 12
As a light rain fell on Augusta National in the morning, Woods received conflicting advice from his father and his swing coach, Butch Harmon.
“Kick some butt,” Earl said.
“Be patient,” Butch said.
At 2:03 p.m. when he stepped to the first tee with Monty, Woods had waited long enough and commenced kicking butt.
An up-and-down birdie on No. 2 combined with Montgomerie’s bogey extended the lead to five shots. When it looked like he might relent by making a mess of the third hole, he drained a 20-footer to save par and stalked behind his ball into the cup.
The rest of the front side was a putting clinic fueled by his Pop’s putting lesson Thursday. He made birdie from 18 feet at No. 5, lipped out a 30-footer at No. 6, drained another birdie from 15 feet on No. 7 and just missed a 12-footer for eagle on No. 8.
He made the turn at 12-under – nine clear of Jeff Sluman and Tom Kite and already 10 shots ahead of poor Monty. Woods walked briskly to the 10th within a few feet of Nicklaus giving post-round interviews behind the 18th green.
Woods, who missed only one green and one fairway all day, added birdies at Nos. 11 and 15 and made a tricky par save from behind the green on the 13th.
“My goal today was never to make a bogey … to never give them an opportunity,” Woods said.
In case anyone hadn’t gotten the message, he hit a huge drive around the corner at No. 18. His sand wedge from 109 yards spun back to a foot for one last birdie and 65. He flashed a smirky shrug with a doffed cap as he walked to the last green.
Only Costantino Rocca playing the last eight holes in 6-under par kept Woods from taking a double-digit lead into the final round.
Woods’ 15-under total tied the Masters 54-hole record set by Raymond Floyd in 1976, and the nine-stroke margin was the largest in a major in the 20th century.
“I think it is too far,” Rocca conceded.
Monty was emphatic after what he’d just seen, insisting his lead “will be higher tomorrow.”
“We’re all human beings here, but there is no chance it is humanly possible that Tiger Woods is going to lose this tournament,” Montgomerie said in one of the most memorable Saturday declarations at a major.
Quickly reminded of Norman blowing a six-shot lead to Faldo in the final round the year before, Monty held firm.
“This is different; this is very different,” he said. “Faldo’s not lying second, for starts. And Greg Norman’s not Tiger Woods.”
Nobody else was arguing.
“Nobody could have said what was going to happen and what was the writing on the wall over the next 20 years.”
“I think we can all go home right now,” Nicklaus said. “He’s in a trance.”
“It’d been a heck of a golf tournament if he’d just stayed amateur another couple of years,” Kite said.
“Looks like the kid is going to win his first Masters,” Tom Watson said. “He’s a boy amongst men, and he’s showing the men how to play.”
Montgomerie, now a Hall of Famer despite never winning a major, called the lesson that afternoon when he was throttled by Woods “special.”
“I didn’t really know what he was capable of,” said Montgomerie, who shot 74. “I felt I had experience over him; we could do something. I was sorely misjudged. And we all were. Nobody could have said what was going to happen and what was the writing on the wall over the next 20 years.
“I’ll never forget that round of golf. I’ll never forget what I saw close hand. I was the closest to it all day. Never forget the experience I had. That was very special playing with someone we’d never seen at the level. New to it. I’ll never ever forget that day, the third round of Augusta 1997. Special day. He shot 65 and it was the easiest 65 I ever saw him score.”
Sunday, April 13
Lee Elder was in such a hurry to get to Augusta National that he got a speeding ticket on the way from the airport in Atlanta. The first black man to strike a golf ball in the Masters was not going to miss this Sunday.
“I made history here, and I came here today to see more history made,” Elder said. “After today, no one will turn their head when a black man walks to the first tee.”
All eyes were on Woods as he stalked from the clubhouse for his 3:08 tee time wearing his signature red shirt with black side panels. Elder broke through Woods’ tunnel vision to wish him well. The mostly black service staff lined the balcony of the clubhouse to watch his opening drive. The Pinkerton guards, many of them black, lined the lawn under the big tree to watch.
“Tiger’s the man, period,” said Henry Ashley, the head waiter in the clubhouse dining room, who died in 2005. “He’s your man. He’s my man. History is in the making with Mr. Tiger Woods.”
This was the coronation of a phenomenon dubbed “Tigermania.”
“The atmosphere was very good for him and me, too,” Rocca said. “People were fighting for him to make the more impressive Masters. At that time he was very powerful and the people were going crazy to see this thing. … It was a big experience to play with a young guy like him and he have already the character and the concentration to win a Masters.”
Other than another up-and-down birdie from behind the green on No. 2, Woods didn’t resemble “the tremendous machine” of Secretariat pulling away from his pursuers. His wedge on No. 5 flew the green into the back bunker, leading to his first bogey in 37 holes. He pulled his tee shot on No. 7 into the pines and made another bogey.
“He make a couple of bogeys and I’m up on him, but I don’t take the opportunities,” Rocca said. “I don’t lay down, but he can beat any player on any course. This is the thing.”
When Woods yanked his 2-iron on No. 8 way left toward the trees and bushes, Rocca had the fleeting thought that there might be an opening.
“I can make a birdie and he can make a double bogey,” Rocca thought.
Woods, however, bumped a 4-iron through the trees and over the mounds that stopped 3 feet from the hole. Ben Crenshaw said “you can hit a bucket of balls and not get one that close.”
Rocca knew then that resistance was useless.
“When he make birdie and I make par, I say, ‘OK, thank you,’” Rocca said with a laugh. “I cannot do nothing. I can make nine birdies and I think he can make nine birdies and two eagles. In that situation you can see he was like Seve. Every time he go in the bushes and coming out from I don’t know which way and he makes birdie or par. This is the power of the big champion, I think.”
Woods’ last concern was “to get through Amen Corner in even par at worst.” He rolled in a long birdie at the 11th, lifting his putter a la Nicklaus as it fell in. He faced his longest putt of the week from the far left side of No. 12 only to lag it beautifully to avoid making any three-putts on the week. When his 6-iron landed safely onto the 13th green, he smiled broadly. He did again when his eagle putt stopped short on the lip.
His 3-wood off the 14th tee left him only a lob wedge in, which he delivered to 8 feet for another birdie to hit 18-under par for the first time in Masters history.
After saving par after a wayward drive on No. 15 and making a tough par on the 16th, Woods realized more was at stake than just a green jacket.
“Truly magnificent. This is a culmination of a lot of hard work, years and years of training and dreams and it’s now turned into reality.”
“When I stepped on 17 tee, I just thought about how many under I was,” he said of the record of 17-under shared by Nicklaus and Floyd. “I looked at the scoreboard and saw I was 18 and thought if I par the last two holes I could have it.”
Woods employed all his power with massive drives on Nos. 17 and 18, the latter sailing well beyond the fairway bunker and the patrons packed around the hole. He shared a laugh with the crowd as caddie Mike “Fluff” Cowan disappeared trying to get a precise yardage for his wedge approach.
When he hit it on, he had to break through the gallery like it was the British Open.
“Truly magnificent,” Earl Woods said of the performance. “This is a culmination of a lot of hard work, years and years of training and dreams and it’s now turned into reality.”
Woods drained his comeback 4-footer for par, the Masters scoring record of 18-under and a record 12-stroke victory over Kite, the B-flight winner. He delivered his famous uppercut fist pump with a right leg kick while Elder cried watching behind the green.
After hugging Fluff, Woods walked into a long, tearful embrace with his father, who believed this was his destiny long before everyone else.
“We made it; we made it; we made it,” Earl said as Tiger sobbed into his father’s shoulder.
“My dad told me last night, ‘Son, this is probably one of the toughest rounds you’ve ever had to play in your life,’” Woods said. “‘If you go out there and be yourself, it will be one of the most rewarding rounds you’ve ever played in your life.’ And he was right.”
While the conversation afterwards was about “Tiger-proofing” the golf course, Rocca knew he’d had a front-row seat to a champion who could not be contained. It was the first of 14 consecutive majors Woods would win after holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead.
“To me he’s the perfect player,” Rocca said. “He plays the game like no other one can beat him. … He won the Masters is like the start. He can win more. It was the character he have on the golf course, never lay down. He wants to win, not finish second. For this reason he had the character for the No. 1 in the world.
“He dominate in every way. I promise you. I have a good eye for youth player if they can become strong or normal. He was special. Every 10, 20 years comes the real champion. Like Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer. Sometimes in 20 years you’ll have three or four fantastic players, but one is the best. In time of Tiger there is a lot of fantastic players, but he is 10 feet over them. That is the difference.”
Woods lived up to all the hype before injuries derailed his projected path to owning every record in golf. He held the world No. 1 ranking for 683 weeks, won a U.S. Open by 15 strokes, set scoring records in every major, won the “Tiger Slam” by winning four consecutive majors (and a Players Championship) in 2000-01, owns 106 worldwide victories, 79 PGA Tour wins, 18 World Golf Championships, two FedEx Cups and could hang enough player of the year, money title and scoring average banners from the rafters of his home to put every collegiate powerhouse program to shame.
It all started with four days in April 1997 that changed what we all thought was possible.
“The only win possibly greater than his ’97 Masters was the U.S. Open in 2000 (at Pebble Beach), when he won by 15,” Montgomerie told Golf.com in February. “But I put ’97 ahead of it. At age 21 … by 12 … in his first major as a pro … at Augusta? The world was like, ‘What just happened here?”’