Tiger Woods toils go on but magical Masters moment of 1997 still resonates | Richard Williams
Watching Tiger Woods now is a struggle but the 20th anniversary of his first Augusta triumph stirs memories of a first-day tee shot that signalled his greatness
The morning at Augusta National had been spent following Lee Westwood, an early starter in the first round of the 1997 Masters. At 23, the Englishman was making his Masters debut. Just to remind him of where he was, his drive off the first tee flew into an enormous sand trap, setting up a double bogey.
Four hours later, as a chastened Westwood was signing for a fiveoverpar 77, news was coming in from the front nine about a worse catastrophe that appeared to be about to engulf an even younger player. Making his much anticipated professional bow in a major tournament, the 21yearold Eldrick Tiger Woods had taken 40 strokes to complete the first half of his opening round, his imminent humiliation forcing its way to the top of the days agenda.
A sprint to the 10th tee past the famous oak tree and the elegant white clubhouse, both fixtures since the 1850s and a squeeze through the crowd, and there was Woods, sharing his round with Nick Faldo, the reigning champion. Fishing a two-iron out of the bag held by his caddy, Fluff Cowan, he settled into his stance and peered down the long, snaking fairway of the 485-yard par-four hole to the giant white Rorschach blots of the bunkers guarding the green.
With four dropped shots behind him, the two-iron looked a conservative choice. Maybe he was already simply trying to salvage respectability. He hit the tee shot with smooth power and perfect aim. An eight-iron and a 15ft putt gave him his first birdie of the tournament.
Others followed at the 12th and 13th as he steamed through Amen Corner on a wave of cheers from the gallery. On the par-five 15th he fired his second shot to 3ft and sank the putt for his first eagle. Another birdie came at the 17th and he walked into the scorers hut with 30 shots on his card for the back nine, and a tally for the round of 70, two under par, putting him in fourth place. And after such a dramatic recovery, there seemed only one option for the rest of the tournament: stick with Tiger.
Paul Azinger, his Friday partner, could only stand back and enjoy the show. Earl Woods, Tigers father, was relaxing in a chair on the clubhouse lawn when his son walked by on his way to the first tee. Just do what you do, he told the young man, who promptly shot a 66. That evening Azinger remarked: He could be the first player to win the Masters who doesnt shave.
On the Saturday it was Colin Montgomeries turn. Three strokes behind in second place at the start of the day, Monty started with a double bogey and finished the round 12 shots back as Woods, with a 65, went to 15 under for the three days.
The leader came out on Sunday in his red shirt, preparing for a victory lap at a club whose founder once said: As long as Im alive, golfers will be white and caddies will be black. It was two days before the 50th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson made his debut for the LA Dodgers. Now, as he arrived at the practice ground, a man came out of the crowd to wish him luck. This was Lee Elder, the first African American golfer to play the Masters, back in 1975. That did it all for me, Woods said later. Right there, I knew what I had to dotoday.
Partnered by Costantino Rocca, who started the day nine shots down, Woods was three under for the round when he arrived on the 18th tee. At the top of his takeaway a photographers shutter clicked, and then clicked twice more before the club head had made its contact with the ball. The shot hooked into the gallery and he was forced to scramble the par that gave him a score for the day of 69, setting majortournament records with a fourday aggregate of 270 and a winning margin (over Tom Kite) of 12 strokes.
As Faldo helped him into a size 42R green jacket, he was putting on the cloak of global superstardom and taking golf along with him into new realms of media coverage and commercial potential. He had also proved that you dont need a close contest to get people watching sport. For the next 11 years the TV audience switched on in record numbers to watch him rack up 13 more majors. The greater his dominance, the more avidly we watched.
On that Sunday night in 1997, still fizzing with exhilaration after tracking him for three and a half days, I raced back to the press room and wrote that if a single shot had shaped the contest, it was the one he played off the 10th tee onthe opening day. In his new book on the 1997 Masters titled Unprecedented and co-written with Lorne Rubinstein he concurs.
In the short walk from the 9th green that afternoon, he dispelled the gloom of those four dropped shots by thinking about how his father, a Vietnam veteran, had instilled in him the mental strength needed to combat adversity. He remembered the way his Buddhist mother had taught him to look for the quiet spot within himself. And he recalled the maxim of his coach, Butch Harmon: The last shot has nothing to do with the next shot. In other words, he pulled himself together.
There, right there, that was it, he writes of his immediate response when his two-iron connected with the ball. That feeling stayed with him for the rest of the tournament and through the next dozen years, until the whole empire of Tiger Woods his aura of invulnerability, his physical integrity, his marriage, his endorsements began to fall apart.
He has until 6 April, the opening day of the 2017 Masters, to decide whether to tee up once again in the event he has won four times. So far this year he has played in two tournaments, missing the cut in one and withdrawing with back pain after a first-round 77 in the other. His last single-digit finishing position was back in December 2013.
The anniversary of his first great triumph is there to be marked, and he has a book to promote. But what sort of sadist would want to watch his agony further prolonged? Better to cherish the memory of an afternoon amid the Georgia pines and the dogwood and the birdsong 20 years ago, and a few shining seconds in which history was made.