It was 25 years ago this week that Tiger Woods made his first entrance onto the grandest stage in golf, the 1995 Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club.
In the age of media, no player had ever been under such an intense spotlight, his every move noted, his every word dissected. Here he was, Eldrick Tont Woods — nicknamed Tiger by his father Earl — at the threshold of his greatness.
His entry into the Masters, which would have started Thursday but has been rescheduled for November, was gained by his 1994 victory in the U.S. Amateur, the first of three straight he would win. Those had followed three straight U.S. Junior Amateurs and scores of wins in the World Juniors, other national events and total domination of California juniors.
A native of Cypress, California, Woods was a 19-year-old freshman at Stanford. He was a coiled spring of 150 pounds, unleashing gravity-defying drives, sharply hit irons and wielding a putter that poured putts into the hole like sweet cream.
He played a practice round with 1992 Masters champion Fred Couples and two-time British Open winner Greg Norman with throngs following him. After the round Norman was asked what a good result for the Masters rookie would be.
“Probably to win,” Norman said. “He’s good enough.”
Here was a young man molded in every way to be a champion by parents who didn’t push him to be one. Earl Woods was a retired Army lieutenant colonel, with two tours of Vietnam, who introduced his son to the game as a toddler. From Earl, Tiger got his extreme sense of focus and dedication, not unlike the traits of Jack Nicklaus, whose record 18 major championships became Woods’ ultimate target. From his Thai mother, Kultida, he got his underlying sense of fire and passion for the game, plus the discipline of her Buddhist religion. From the two of them, he got his undeniable confidence.
He arrived on Sunday night after a college competition and checked into the Crows Nest, the dormitory-style living quarters in the attic of the Augusta National Golf Club that is reserved for the amateurs playing in the Masters.
Earl Woods had decided that his son would benefit from having an Augusta National caddie who knew the greens. For several years Woods’ caddie had been Jay Brunza, a former Navy captain and then clinical psychologist who Earl recruited to play a formative role in molding the mind of a champion.
The bagman Earl Woods selected was Tommy “Burnt Biscuits” Bennett, a 20-year veteran at Augusta National who, after getting his first look at Woods hitting balls, remarked: “I don’t know if he’s unfair or unreal. Tiger swings so pure the ball doesn’t want to come down.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Woods came before a packed media room at Augusta National to give what became a trademark of such interviews over the first several years of his career. He deflected any sense of emotion about being at Augusta the first time, and especially about being the fourth black man to play in the tournament, with Lee Elder being the first in 1975.
Woods called the Masters just another tournament, though he did add “It just happens to be a major.”
When a follow-up question sought to further explore his feelings on being at what was for many the most exalted tournament in the game, he responded: “I am thrilled, but my main focus is on my game and not the atmosphere here. My main focus is to get my game ready for Thursday.”
When questioned about being the fourth black player in the Masters, a tournament that once excluded blacks, he was asked if he had encountered any problems in Augusta, alluding to anything that could be racial.
“I have not encountered any problem except for the speed of the greens,” he said.
The next day he played another practice round with Norman and Nick Price. Ominously, on the fifth hole, he suffered a back spasm and pulled out to get treatment. Little did we know then that back problems would nearly end his career.
Thursday was a drizzly dank day in Augusta for the first round. Woods’ tee time was 1:03 p.m. As the U.S. Amateur champion, he was paired with defending champion Jose Maria Olazabal. Woods blasted his drive over the fairway bunker on the right leaving a wedge to the green.
"I needed binoculars to see where he hit the ball," Olazabal said.
Woods would make a hash of the hole, his wedge finishing 25 feet past the cup, leaving a ticklish downhill putt. He ran that one off the green, putted back up to 12 feet and made it for bogey. He played the par-5 second hole like the Tiger everyone came to know. He drove the ball through the trees on the right, fired a 2-iron back through them to the front of the green and two-putted for a birdie to the roaring delight of the swarming “patrons.”
Woods took a circuitous route to shooting an even par 72. A 19-year-old Nicklaus shot 76 in his first Masters round in 1959, his entry gained by being on the 1958 Walker Cup team. With another 72 in the second round, Woods made the cut easily, the first time in eight PGA Tour events dating to the1992 Los Angeles Open that he would play on the weekend.
The Saturday round was a sloppy 77, marked by several approach shots he hit over greens. Mark O’Meara, who would be his mentor over the next 10 years, emphasized distance control as key to his approach game and Woods would drill incessantly at that for years.
Woods finished with his third 72 on Sunday, playing the last four holes in birdie, birdie, par, birdie. He tied for 41st with Payne Stewart. Ben Crenshaw won after attending the funeral of his longtime coach, Harvey Penick, earlier in the week.
That evening, Earl Woods was asked about his son’s performance.
“I’m going to make a prediction,” Earl said. “Before he’s through, my son will win 14 major championships.”
He wasn’t off by much. With last year’s Masters win, the fifth green jacket of his career, Woods holds 15 major championships. Earl Woods knew his son. The grand promise of 1995 was fulfilled.