At the 1997 Masters, Tiger Woods overpowered one of the world’s great golf courses, steamrolled a field composed of the world’s best players and rewrote the record book in the game’s most revered event. And that wasn’t the half of it.
What Woods really did 20 years ago was change the course of golf for every day since then.
That Masters, his first major championship, was when Tiger Woods emerged from having been a sensational young golfer into a cultural phenomenon. His dominance, his style of play (particularly his extremely long drives), his nickname, his red-and-black outfit and his identity as an African- and Asian-American at a formerly all-white venue all coalesced to fit perfectly inside a green jacket.
Woods, the tournament, other majors, the tour and the sport took off the second week of April in 1997 and all still are spinning, or reeling, because of it. His pinnacles and pitfalls have been larger than life. Even this week, nine years removed from his most recent major title and two months removed from the last time his chronic back situation allowed him to play a competitive round, there was huge speculation about whether he would play in the Masters this year. That ended Friday night when he announced on his web site that he was not yet ready to play tournament golf.
All of the frenzy can be traced to the time when he was a 21-year-old who shrugged off a discouraging 40 on the front nine of his first round and won the Masters by a record 12 strokes.
The anniversary has not been lost on anyone involved with golf, least of all Woods, who recently released a book, “The 1997 Masters. My Story.” In it, he recalls seeing many of Augusta National’s black workers attending his championship ceremony and reflects, “The Masters has meant so much to me. It’s hard to fathom.”
What that particular Masters set in motion is plain to see now, every week. “For the tour players, it tripled the tour’s total purse didn’t it? It went from $100 million to $300 million, so everybody has really enjoyed that. And obviously, it has always been a fact that Tiger moves the needle on the (TV) ratings,” said Nick Faldo, the defending champion in 1997 who played the first round with Woods, and now is the lead analyst for the tournament on CBS.
Lance Barrow, the producer on the CBS telecast every year since — you guessed it — 1997, said, “All these great players you see now playing golf, around the world and in this tournament, they came from sitting at home watching Tiger Woods play golf. They all said, ‘Hey we can do that.’ You see their swagger, the way they play, their go-for-broke attitude. At every golf tournament now, including the Masters, there are 20 people within one or two shots of the lead because they all watched Tiger growing up and they all said, ‘You know, I can play like that.’”
In that respect, the 20th anniversary will be an homage to Woods. But it also will be a poignant tribute to Arnold Palmer, who had been at every Masters since 1955. Palmer died in September, leaving behind his own legacy for having popularized golf to the American masses 40 years before Woods did.
“There have been better golfers, but no one ever did more for golf,” said award-winning journalist Tom Callahan, who has covered Palmer, Woods and every golfer in between and whose book, “Arnie: The Life of Arnold Palmer” will be released Tuesday. Callahan said that along with sharing status as icons who transcended golf, Palmer and Woods had affection for each other. The latter always has pointed out that his two children were born in Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, named for Arnold’s late wife.
“I think Arnold was a little awed by Tiger,” Callahan said. “You’d have to be completely dishonest if you were not awed by it.”
One way or another, millions responded to Woods, starting with that week in 1997. Colin Montgomerie, who played alongside him in the third round after inadvertently motivating him with some skeptical comments the day before, said the other day: “It was the easiest 65 I’ve ever seen shot, and it opened my eyes and opened the world’s eyes to this golfer we haven’t seen the likes of before. Incredible phenomenon.”
Andy North, the two-time U.S. Open champion who will be announcing the first two rounds this week for ESPN, recalled that no one had seen a golfer overwhelm Augusta as Woods did — at least not since Jack Nicklaus.
“This was a signal that the rest of the golf world was going to be in for a lot of trouble if they expected to beat this guy,” North said. “He changed so many things in the game in much the same way that we saw Arnold do it back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The television contracts exploded. He made golf cool. If you were a kid playing on the high school golf team in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, all of a sudden you were proud to walk through the front door of the school with your golf clubs to put in your locker.”
But it did not completely blossom as Woods and others in golf had hoped. There has not been succession of minority pros following his lead onto the PGA Tour. And golf participation in general has not taken off the way it did 50 years ago. Several Long Island courses that were built during the Tiger Wave have since closed, the most recent being Tallgrass in Shoreham.
Woods’ life also has taken unexpected and unhappy turns. Knee and back surgeries have curtailed his play. His name became a punch line on tabloid TV after the revelations about his personal life. In his book, he says of his former wife Elin Nordegren, “I betrayed her. My dishonesty and selfishness caused her intense pain.”
His record as a golfer, though, remains extraordinary. Woods’ former swing instructor Hank Haney said on his own Sirius XM radio show Friday, “I don’t think anyone has ever played better golf than Tiger Woods.”
On the last page of his book, Woods writes, “I lived in ’97 for that moment when I had to perform. Maybe I don’t live as much for that now, but I still crave competing . . . My parents told me it was okay for me to fail, as long as I gave everything I had. I have given it everything I have.”