Reliving the 1997 Masters: Tiger Woods' 1st Major Championship

Will Leivenberg@@will_leivenbergFeatured ColumnistApril 7, 2013

Tiger Woods didn’t blow away the 1997 Masters field immediately.

Before the first shot was struck at Augusta National, golf’s most mesmerizing and meaningful tournament began with a bitter memory.

Greg Norman’s Sunday meltdown the year before still stung and turned the Masters into what Rick Reilly called “a green-carpeted funeral procession.”

"The Shark" lost his six-stroke lead en route to a soul-crushing 78, while playing partner Nick Faldo shot a final-round 67 and won the coveted green jacket. The sinister combination of Norman’s nerves failing him, the course’s unrelenting toughness and the lore of Masters greatness caused one of golf's most esteemed champions to crumble.

Norman’s collapse reminded the world of Augusta National's treacherousness, but it also showed how much mental fortitude is required to win a major championship.

So when 21-year-old Tiger Woods entered the tournament as a favorite, there seemed to be no way he would realistically withstand the grueling challenge of the Masters and scrape out a good finish. 

And he didn’t. Instead, he rewrote history.

Round 1: A Dreadful Start

It wasn't all sunshine and fairway strolls for Woods. His opening round began dreadfully, which is what makes Tiger's journey all the more impressive. 

Four bogeys and five pars in his opening nine holes pointed to a missed cut. But like the steeliest of athletes, Woods refused to be written off.

As Rick Reilly observed, "Something happened to him as he walked to the 10th tee, something that separates him from other humans. He fixed his swing, right there, in his mind."

Round 2: Driving Clinic

In Round 2, Tiger turned Augusta National into his personal pitch-and-putt. After a birdie at the second and bogey at the third, Woods kicked it into gear, shooting two under on his front nine.

His outrageous length wasn't just an edge—it was the nail in the coffin for the rest of the field. 

Woods torched the back nine, notably reaching the 500-yard par-five 15th hole with just a driver and pitching wedge while his peers were fighting to reach with long irons and three-woods.

He shot a six-under 66 in the second round, carding five birdies, an eagle and just a single bogey.

Woods was playing an aggressive brand of golf on a course that historically demanded more conservative play because of the unforgiving greens and difficult pin placements.

He quickly flipped the script on that narrative, attracting throngs of fans with his in-your-face style, and as Sports Illustrated writer Damon Hack wrote, "The patrons said the sound of his clubs hitting a golf ball made a different noise from the sound of his competitors. They likened it to a lightning strike."

Round 3: Blowing Away the Field

Woods' early troubles from Thursday had evaporated. He shot a four-under 32 on his opening nine holes, and then, instead of pumping the brakes, Woods went full speed ahead. He made birdies at the 11th, 15th and 18th holes to post a three-under 33 on the backside.

There was a palpable sense of purpose in every swing Woods took. As Dave Anderson of the New York Times put it:

But beyond his physical talents, his mental maturity sets him apart from golf's grinders. You could see his competitive flame burning as he strode the fairways with cool confidence. He reacted with disbelief when he missed a putt that was makable. He enjoyed his best shots with a dazzling boyish smile and a quick pump of his right fist.

On a day that was truly flawless, Woods came to the 18th hole with the poise and focus of someone trailing in the tournament.

He split the fairway with another huge drive and would capture his seventh birdie of the day to shoot the best round of the tournament: a bogey-free seven-under 65.

Saturday was a demolition round.

It was such a convincingly dominant performance that Tiger's third-round playing partner, Colin Montgomerie, basically handed him the green jacket before Sunday's round even began.

Round 4: No Doubt

Once again, Woods was a blueprint of consistency. Despite making bogeys at five and seven—officially ending his streak of 38 consecutive holes without a bogey—Tiger found his groove, especially with clutch shots like this chip below:

Woods added birdies at 11, 13 and 14 to reach 18-under for the championship.

He displayed marvelous touch on the greens all week and faced just a short par putt at 18 to clinch the green jacket and his first major championship.

Tiger carded five birdies and two bogeys on the day to shoot a three-under 69 and win the Masters.

Rewriting the Record Books

Woods broke a variety of records that week, but three remain particularly monumental feats.

In retrospect, Tiger's explosiveness off the tee was a huge advantage, as well as his bulletproof iron play and meticulous distance control. All were crucial to his success.

But nothing was more important, or as impressive, as his unparalleled touch on and around the greens. Specifically, Woods honed his putting stroke with a "die the ball at the cup" method that combated the slickness of the Augusta's greens. 

Woods’ effect on the public seemed to transcend the competition. You could sense a fire, a will, unparalleled by his peers. 

After his rough start to open the Masters, he shot 22 under in his final 63 holes.

It was a truly superhuman feat.

A Win for Family

Tiger's first major victory validated a belief his father, Earl Woods, had from the time he picked up a golf club at a very young age. Tiger's natural talent was undeniable from the start, but his self-control was something that had to be honed.

Through an intense regimen rooted in his military background, Earl challenged Tiger to control his nerves and believe that there was no one—not on any course, of any age or of any skin color—as mentally tough as him.

If Earl was responsible for Tiger's technique and inner confidence, then it was his mother, Kultida, who forged in Tiger a gritty, leave-no-survivors mentality. Kultida once said of Tiger, "When he was young and I saw that he had the killer instinct, I encouraged him. I told him, when you are ahead, you've got to finish it off."

What Tiger's Win Meant for Golf

The 1997 Masters was a monumental, record-breaking week, but beyond the scope of any record book, Tiger broke down racial barriers that had been embedded in the sport since its inception.

Woods identified as one-half African-American and one-half Thai, but what the public saw—from those at Augusta National to those glued to their televisions—was the first black man to ever win a major championship.

And in truly historic fashion, no less.

Augusta National, golf’s eternal mecca, emanated exclusivity and elitism. The course had only begun allowing African-Americans to become club members seven years prior to Woods’ victory. It was Clifford Roberts, the tournament’s co-founder in 1933, who once said, "As long as I'm alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black."

Roberts' quote doesn't mention champions. 

Not Everyone Was Rooting for Tiger

Even at the 1997 Masters, there were those, like Fuzzy Zoeller, who perpetuated and echoed Roberts' closed-minded, racist sentiments. 

Sixty-three years after Roberts established the Masters, 21-year-old Tiger Woods slipped into the green jacket. 

Woods acknowledged his victory as a result of those brave African-American golfers who paved the way before him—golfers like Lee Elder, who earned an invitation to be the first black man to play in the Masters in 1975 after winning the Monsanto Open.

Woods also paid homage to the groundwork laid by golf’s other African-American heroes like Charlie Sifford and Teddy Rhodes, players who were arguably more talented than the white players of their generation yet never qualified to play at Augusta National.

Sports is often a reflection of society itself, and golf had for far too long been a reflection of only a select few: the predominantly white upper class. 

Woods’ victory alone couldn’t fully erase a history of discrimination, which was as constant and unchanging as Augusta's azaleas, but this 1997 Masters was a historic sports moment in every sense of the word. 

It signified the beginning of the Tiger Woods Era, one in which Woods would become one of the most dominant sportsmen ever.

Woods entered the 1997 Masters with just a single professional victory. Today, he owns 77 career wins and 14 major championships.

Oh, and four green jackets.


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