“Golf, as we know it, is over. It came to an end on a chamber-of-commerce Sunday evening in Las Vegas when Tiger Woods went for the upgrade: He’s not just a promising young Tour pro anymore; he’s an era.” — Gary Van Sickle, Sports Illustrated, October 1996
For all the feeling that the golf world had shifted when a 20-year-old Tiger Woods won in Las Vegas in his fifth start as a professional, the real metamorphosis was still to come. He won two weeks later in Orlando, and despite playing in only seven events, qualified for the Tour Championship and was named PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. In December 1996 he was named SI Sportsman of the Year. A month later he won the Mercedes Championships, his third victory in nine starts. When he rolled into Augusta, Ga., for the Masters in April 1997, Woods had done everything a young golfer can — everything except contend in a major. Here, as recalled by 34 eyewitnesses, including Woods himself, is how that historic week unfolded, and why it will never be forgotten.
Woods was making his third start at the Masters. He had finished 41st in 1995, and despite missing the cut in ’96, he said he thought he had played better and that he felt much more comfortable plotting his way around Augusta National. Fellow pros raved about his clubhead speed and prodigious length. He had most certainly caught the attention of a six-time Masters champion. “He’ll be the favorite for the next 20 years,” Jack Nicklaus said.
Oddsmakers took notice as well. In Great Britain, Ladbrokes made defending champion Nick Faldo the favorite, at 14–1. Woods was next at 16-1, along with Fred Couples, Tom Lehman, Greg Norman and Nick Price.
Mark Cumins (owner, TBonz Steakhouse of Augusta): It was full-on TigerMania, and you could feel it in the restaurant. Leading up to the tournament, a lot of players will come by for a drink or a bite to eat. All people wanted to talk about was Tiger. They would come up to Fuzzy Zoeller, Brad Faxon, Ernie Els and say, “Hey, can I take your picture? Can I have your autograph? Oh, and what do you think about Tiger?”
Woods: My game felt good. I had also won the Asian Honda Classic in Thailand by about 10 shots and tied for second by a stroke at Pebble. The week before at Isleworth I practiced really well with Mark [O’Meara] and shot 59, including a hole-in-one.
O’Meara: He shot the easiest 59 any human could possibly shoot. The next day we teed off on 10. He hits a wedge to 10 feet and makes birdie, so I’m one down. We go to 11, and he’s hitting an 8-iron. He holes it. I looked at him and said, “You know what? Here’s $100. Screw you, I’m done.” I got in my cart and drove off.
Gary Player: At the par-3 contest in 1996, it was windy, and Tiger didn’t know how to hit the knockdowns that the conditions required. His ball was ballooning in the air. I’d seen him hit full shots on the practice range, so I knew what a magnificent talent he was. But the par-3 course exposed something in his game.
Peter Kostis (CBS): He was a big, freewheeling, long-hitting kid, and the weakest part of his game was his inability to control the trajectory, the flight, the distance on his short-game shots.
Player: Sure enough, in 1997 he had those shots perfected. It was the biggest improvement I’ve ever seen a golfer make from one year to the next. It was staggering.
Larry Dorman (The New York Times): I told Tiger, “This place is built for you. You can kill the par-5s. It’s essentially a par-68 course, but what shape is your game in?” He said, “Wide, tight and rippin’ it.” Peak-swagger Tiger.
Tom Kite: That was one of the more difficult set-ups the Masters committee has given us. They were a little worried about Tiger or somebody else shooting some very good scores. Tiger’s name was being thrown about because he was playing very well.
Kostis: Most 21-year-olds come in to Augusta hoping to make the cut, wide-eyed and in awe of the whole deal. Tiger came in expecting to win.
Swing coach Butch Harmon wanted Woods to play practice rounds with former champions, and in fact, Woods played on Tuesday with Jose Maria Olazabal, the 1994 champ, and on Wednesday with Ben Crenshaw, the winner in ’95.
Harmon: Tiger was very inquisitive about things. He always wanted to know. “How do you do this? How do you do that?”
Carl Jackson (Augusta National caddie): In 1996, Tiger played two practice rounds with Ben [Crenshaw]. As Ben and I went through our routine on the greens, Tiger followed Ben everywhere. Tiger and Ben both missed the cut, but Tiger hung around just to say thanks. He said, “The pins were exactly where you said they would be.” Tiger learned a lot from Ben as far as putting on Augusta’s greens.
The morning of the first round was unseasonably cold with temperatures in the 40s and wind gusts up to 15 mph. Luckily for Woods, he got the benefit of a late tee time. His first round would start at 1:44 p.m. alongside Faldo. By the time he stepped to the 1st tee, the wind had calmed and the temperature was trending toward 60 degrees. His first swing produced a hard hook into the left rough.
Harmon: He was so amped up. He had all this anxiety.
Kostis: I think the adrenaline got to him.
Fred Vuich (SI photographer): He needed a map to find the golf course.
Woods began his first Masters as a professional with a bogey. He made three more, at the 4th, 8th and 9th holes, and turned in four-over-par 40.
O’Meara: I was as shocked as anyone. I knew how good he was playing.
Paul Stankowski: I recall looking back at No. 9, seeing that he was four over and giggling. I said to myself, Nice playing, kid. I was a couple under par. He was the big story, and Augusta was taking him down.
John Garrity (Sports Illustrated): He missed his par putt on No. 9, and he looked hot.
Kostis: It took him a while to calm down. But you could see Tiger having a conversation with himself walking from 9 green to 10 tee.
Cumins: I was standing beside the 9th green. I wanted to get a look at Tiger’s famous focus. He slammed his putter against his bag in disgust, and he muttered an expletive.
Mike “Fluff” Cowan (Woods’s caddie): Going to the 10th tee, I told him, “This is just the front nine. Let’s go play some solid golf on the back—shoot 35, 34—and see where we are.”
Pete McDaniel (Golf Digest): Apparently, he and Butch had been working on shortening his backswing.
Harmon: He had what we call a little run-on in his swing, where his body stops turning and his arms keep going. I wanted him to have the feeling where he kept his right hand as far away from his head as he could at the top of his swing. That lets the club get down more in front of him and he could get through the ball better. His swing had just gotten a little loose.
McDaniel: Earl [Woods] was always lighthearted when it came to his son’s weaknesses. He would laugh when Tiger made a bad swing or got into bad position. He told me, “You have to learn when you’re following Tiger not to get too emotionally involved because he will be O.K. He’ll be just fine.”
Woods: After I hit my tee shot at No. 10, I knew I had found the swing I wanted. It was the same swing I had all year long. Walking down No. 10, I keep saying to myself, Just keep using that swing.
Cumins: Suddenly, something in his expression changed. His eyes got real narrow, this intense look came across his face.
Kostis: On 10, he roped it around the corner. Then he hit it to about 15 feet and made it for birdie.
Harmon: On the 12th hole, he missed the green a little left, but he chipped in for a 2. That changed the whole momentum of the first nine holes.
Woods birdied the par-5 13th and parred the 14th. He had weathered the storm of a tumultuous front nine and was one over par as he reached the 15th hole, historically one of Augusta National’s easiest.
O’Meara: We were waiting together on the 15th tee. I remember sitting next to him, saying “Bud, you just need to feel like you’re playing against me all the time, because when you do, you light it up.” He was laughing.
From a mere 151 yards, Woods tossed a smooth pitching wedge to four feet and holed the eagle putt. He was in the red, at one under par.
Stankowski: I heard the roars right behind me. By the time I finished I had a pretty good idea he had figured something out.
O’Meara: Then he added another birdie on 17. Nothing the kid did surprised me.
Woods barely missed his 15-foot birdie try on 18, which would have given him a record back-nine score of 29. Still, after 18 holes of polarizing golf, Tiger had broken par for the first time at Augusta National. He signed for a two-under 70, five shots better than Faldo, and trailed only John Huston (67), Stankowski (68) and Paul Azinger (69). Only three other players broke par. For the rest of the 86-man field, Augusta National played difficult; the average score was 76.09.
At the time, players were re-paired after the first round. Woods would go off in the penultimate group alongside Azinger, at 2:29 p.m. The weather was ideal: 70 degrees with a slight breeze. Those fans who had ditched Woods after his Thursday front nine had returned in full force.
Len Shapiro (Washington Post): His gallery, started out three- and four-deep. Then it was seven- and 10-deep.
Rick Reilly (Sports Illustrated): It was like you’ve got a bunch of food on a paper plate, and everything tilts toward one side. Everyone wanted to see.
Vuich: It gets to the point where you’re being swept along.
Michael Bamberger (Sports Illustrated): To watch this kid play shots with your own eyes and not on TV — if you had a chance to do it, you were going to.
Stankowski: Tiger had been groomed for those moments. Earl did a pretty darn good job of preparing him for that. Maybe it was just in his DNA, but he was comfortable in that setting.
Woods began his second round chipping in for birdie from just off the 2nd green but followed with a bogey on the par-4 3rd. He breezed through the next nine holes in two under, with birdies at the 5th and the 8th holes. Four groups ahead, Scotsman Colin Montgomerie birdied the 15th hole, grabbing the outright lead at six under, but he gave back the shot with a bogey on the par-3 16th. Three holes behind Monty, the 1997 Masters reached its second inflection point.
David Feherty: Every player can find another 10 or 15 yards if they hit it hard. Tiger could find another 50. It was like watching a creature from another planet.
Kostis: He looped a driver over the corner and hit just 8-iron in to 13.
From 170 yards, Woods knocked his approach 20 feet past the pin, then rolled in the putt for eagle. He was alone in first. Stankowski, meanwhile, bogeyed four of the first 11 holes, including three straight starting at the 4th. Huston, his playing partner, was hanging on, at one over for the day and four under for the tournament when he reached the 12th tee.
Stankowski: It was my fourth year on Tour, and this was the first time I was in the lead group at a major. It was a little unnerving. Neither John nor I performed very well.
Feherty: Normally when you get in front, players slow down. You can’t be as aggressive because you could make a big mistake, especially at Augusta National. That inward half, where you hit one bad shot. You can run yourself up a number.
Stankowski: John laid the sod over a few shots as he was chipping over Rae’s Creek. He just kept chunking them into the water. It’s like a car wreck; you don’t want to look at it, but you can’t stop.
Huston made 10 and went from tied with Woods to six back on the 14th. Woods moved to eight under with birdies on 14 and 15, and like that, his lead had ballooned to three shots.
Shapiro: Because of the way the golf course is situated in a valley, the roars just echo. They kept getting louder and louder and louder.
Stankowski: It was apparent he was having a field day.
Feherty: My tower was vibrating like a tuning fork. People got the sense that they were watching something special. Something historic.
Jackson: All the Black people in town — it was just buzzing.
Tiger closed with three pars and maintaining a three-shot advantage as the field was trimmed to 46. Faldo, Norman and Phil Mickelson were among the players who missed the cut. On Saturday, Woods would have an afternoon date with Montgomerie.
Harmon: Before he went to do his interviews, Tiger went to the range to wind down. We talked about different shots he played. It was all to get his nervous system down, back to normal.
Cowan: Butch kept everything very loose. That was his M.O.
Dave Kindred (Sporting News): Montgomerie came in to the press room and said, “Well, he’s only human.”
Jeff Sluman: It was a fair point.
Ian O’Connor (New York Daily News): It was basically, “Hey, this kid has never felt the pressure or the heat of a major championship weekend.”
Harmon: We were just laughing. I said to Tiger, “Oh, he’ll see. He’ll find out.”
Bob Harig (St. Petersburg Times): I thought Monty’s bluster was ill-advised, but I can understand why he said it. Tiger had a tendency to be wild. He didn’t have the experience. How was he going to do on Saturday in the final group?
O’Connor: We’ve seen Tiger be inspired by slights — perceived or real — and then take those slights and use them against those who delivered them. This was the first time someone did that.
Woods and Montgomerie went off at 2:03 p.m. It was another perfect day for scoring. At the par-5 2nd, Monty got an early glimpse at Tiger’s talent.
Montgomerie: Length was only part of it. Tiger hit a driver and a 9-iron over the green. I was short with a driver and a 4-wood.
Harig: Tiger made Monty look like a child with the way he played it. He was 50 to 60 yards ahead of him off the tee.
Montgomerie: The pin was in the back left. It’s a par-5. He had nothing. I said to Alistair [McLean, his caddie], “He’s had it here, Al, hasn’t he?” Because you can make 6 from back there in a hurry. The chip shot he played there! It was sublime.
Harig: You could tell on that hole that Monty didn’t realize what he was in for.
Woods continued to dominate the par-5s. He birdied both on the front and added 3s at the 5th and 7th holes. He turned in 32, then made his fifth birdie after drawing 9-iron to 12 feet on the par-4 11th. Montgomerie, meanwhile, had made three bogeys and just a single birdie. His three-shot deficit had grown to 10.
Sluman: I remember walking off 9 green. I was now in second. Tiger was running away. We all looked up at the leader board, and I said, “Boy, it’d be a pretty good tournament if the kid had stayed in school.”
Montgomerie: His caddie was in amazement too. I said to Fluff, “This is something else, isn’t it?” He agreed.
Sluman: I had to play perfect golf. I hit a three-wood on 13, and if I caught it perfectly I had a 4-iron in. Tiger hitting an 8-iron in and me hitting a 4-iron in, I lose every time.
Kite: Tiger was so much longer than everybody else. He was the only one getting close enough to the greens and spinning his irons more than anybody else could. He was hitting less club in there, getting more spin on it and consequently he had such an advantage.
Cowan: He missed the 13th green on the left. The hole was back left, on the plateau. He had nothing. He bumped it into the hill with an 8-iron and left himself a five-footer. He missed the putt, but the chip was incredible. I don’t remember much from that tournament, but I remember that shot.
O’Meara: It seemed like it might be over.
Tom Watson: I was watching on TV as he hit it over the green at 14. He chipped it back short and rammed the par putt home from probably 10 or 12 feet. If it hadn’t hit the middle of the hole, he might have had an 80-footer left. When you hit the putt so hard, it hits the back of the hole and pops up, then goes in instead of just dropping in, you’ve got supreme confidence in your putting.
Kindred: It was like Secretariat winning the Belmont.
O’Connor: Late in that round, both of Monty’s chins were dragging up the fairway. He was such a beaten man. He looked like Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman.
Feherty: On 15, the second crosswalk is not in play. Tiger hit his tee shot and was like Michelangelo’s David on the follow-through. Nothing moved except for his eyelashes. He looked at the ball. He looked at the fairway. He looked at the ball. He looked at the fairway. It was a tee shot where nobody else could hit it, up around the second crosswalk.
Montgomerie: The press was focused on his length. I was focused on how he scored, how he got around the golf course, how he played chess around the golf course. It was different.
Faxon: Success at Augusta comes from being able to manage your approach shots. It seemed he always had a putt under the hole or makable. Even the ones that were crazy difficult, he was knocking them in.
Feherty: Monty was dumbfounded, I know that. There were a lot of players who just looked bewildered. How do you do that? You don’t. He does.
Reilly: Tiger and his Dad used to kid with me. Their motto was, “We came. We saw. We conquered, and we got the f— out of town.” It was this kind of scorched-earth tour.
McDaniel: Tiger didn’t get that from Earl. He got that from his mother. She told him, “Step on their necks. When it’s over, shake their hand. But during the competition, they are not your friend. You can be friends after the competition.”
Woods played bogey-free golf on Saturday, making eight 3s en route to a seven-under 65. Montgomerie managed just two birdies to go with four bogeys, dropping into a tie for sixth with a 74. When he faced the media, his tune about the prospects of a Woods victory had changed: “We’re all human beings here, and there is no chance, humanly possible, that Tiger Woods is going to lose this tournament. No way.”
Montgomerie: Everyone vilified me for those comments.
Dorman: Monty was incredulous when he was asked if anyone could catch Tiger.
Stankowski: Norman had blown a six-shot lead the year before, so it’s possible, not probable.
O’Connor: Monty said, “Tiger Woods is not Greg Norman.” The gasp in the room was funny. I can still hear it today. Monty had finally seen the light with Tiger. He found out the hard way.
Montgomerie: I was saying, “No, you don’t understand — this guy’s different. Not only is he not going to lose, he’s going to win by more than nine.”
Woods: I never told myself I was going to win. Saturday night I had a long talk with Pop and he said, “Sunday will be one of the toughest rounds you’ll ever play in your life. There will be a lot of emotions.”
Bamberger: I remember this scene with Crenshaw on Saturday evening in front of the clubhouse. He’s golf’s greatest historian, and he was in awe. He never expected that he would see what we were seeing: a 21-year-old golfer playing in his first major as a professional, playing against the best players in the world and having a nine-shot lead through three rounds.
Harmon: In 1996 I was coaching Greg Norman. I didn’t want Tiger to be complacent.
A WALK TO HISTORY
Shapiro: Sunday was going to be one of the great days in golf. No person of color had ever won the tournament. He’d be the youngest guy to ever win the tournament, and he had a chance to break all the scoring records.
Stankowski: I was so close to witnessing history. I had a 10-footer on Saturday that would have put me with Tiger on Sunday. I missed it. Then [Costantino] Rocca had a 20-footer, and he made it.
Mick Doran (Rocca’s caddie): Knowing you’re in the last group with the champion-to-be, it was going to be something to look back on. Just to be part of the group was fantastic.
Lee Elder (first African-American to play in the Masters, in 1975): We flew from Fort Lauderdale to Atlanta, rented a car and started driving to the course. I’m doing about 80 to 85 [mph], not paying any attention. All of a sudden, a trooper’s coming out of the woods. I pulled over and said, “Officer, I know I was going a bit over the speed limit, but history is about to be made in your state! Tiger Woods is about to win the Masters, and I’m trying to get to Augusta so I can see it.” He takes the license and writes down the tag. He comes back to the car and says, “You can pay this, or you can follow me to the precinct.” He handed me the license, registration and the ticket and said, “I don’t know anything about golf. Who is Tiger Woods?”
Harmon: Tiger’s mindset was to continue everything he had been doing. Try and distance himself like he had done in Thailand.
Kostis: I’ve been around long enough to know it’s never over.
Stankowski: Somebody asked if a comeback was possible. I said, “If somebody can get off to a hot start, like make six or seven birdies in the first two or three holes, they’ll have a chance.”
Sluman: Only if he broke his leg falling down the stairs. And even then, it better be a really bad break.
Rocca: If I finish the front nine two behind, I can do it.
Doran: No. It’s impossible. The guy is playing so well. He’s leading by nine strokes for a reason.
Steve Elkington: I finished my round and was in the locker room. I’m washing my face and out of the toilet comes Tiger. He hadn’t teed off yet. It was like 2 o’clock. He walks by, and I see him in the mirror. It was like a guy who is throwing a no-hitter: You don’t want to talk to him.
Shapiro: I was with Lee Elder, waiting on the 1st tee. It’s wall-to-wall people, all the way to the clubhouse. Up on the balcony, all you saw were waiters, bus boys, bartenders, cleaning people, maids. And 90 percent of them were people of color, just watching the scene.
O’Connor: We were only two days away from the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson at Ebbets Field.
Shapiro: Everybody on the balcony was smiling, clapping and enjoying the moment. I looked at Elder, and there were tears coming out of his eyes.
Elder: I was shedding a tear for Tiger. They did the same thing for me after my first round. Every Black who was working at Augusta lined up along the entry to the clubhouse. They clapped and thanked me for coming. If Tiger felt anything like I felt, it had to be so gratifying.
It was another gorgeous day. Alongside Rocca, Woods teed off at 2:08 p.m., ripping a drive and grabbing his tee as the ball reached its apex.
Doran: Half the day he was 60 yards past us. On No. 1, he took it straight over the bunker. On No. 2, he’s getting halfway down the hill to the par-5.
Fred Funk: He seemed to will putts into the hole. He didn’t make all his birdie putts, but he sure seemed to make all these freakin’ par putts.
Doran: You’re trying to finish as best you can, but you’ve got one eye on Tiger and watching him make history.
Woods bogeyed the 5th hole after his approach went over the green and into some bushes. It was his first bogey since the 3rd hole on Friday. He bogeyed the 7th as well, but he was back on cruise control after making birdie on the par-5 8th.
O’Connor: I was looking for any tension within him early on. I thought there was some. It was the 8th hole where I finally saw him smile. He was walking down the fairway, and I saw the tension relax in his body. I thought it was the first time he knew he was going to win.
Steve Rushin (Sports Illustrated): I was sitting in the 19th hole at Augusta (Municipal) Golf Course, watching on a little TV. When Tiger was on the back nine, the phone at the counter kept ringing. People were calling in requesting souvenir scorecards. This guy in the shop said to me, “I’d be happy to send them a scorecard, but they’re going to be disappointed.”
Woods birdied the 11th, 13th and 14th holes to reach 18 under. If he could play the final four holes in even par, he would break the all-time Masters scoring record. Considering he had birdied the par-5 15th each of the first three days, breaking the record seemed a formality.
Faxon: I specifically remember how far he hit his drive on 15.
Rocca: He played 3-wood, 8-iron. I played driver up the right side, but I could not reach without hitting a 3-iron.
Reilly: Tiger’s in the rough. He’s going to try to go for it over the pond from some crazy position. He hits the shot and a kid comes up to him from behind to pat him on the back, to touch this god who had appeared on the golf landscape. Tiger got all mad about the shot. He pulled his club back like he was going to pound it into the ground, and he almost hit this kid! I’m thinking, This guy is going to break the record for victory margin at Augusta, and even though he should be whistling and dancing and taking bouquets of flowers as he goes, he’s pissed because he’s not going to get on in two and he’s about to brain this kid.
Feherty: Usually after the leaders come through 15, I’m off that hole like a fireman and on my way to McDuffy Field to catch a plane. On this particular occasion I stopped at the [CBS] compound. I had to watch it.
Rocca: On 18, he hooked his tee shot down toward No. 9.
Bamberger: I was with my friend Bertis Downs, the manager of R.E.M. We went charging up the hill, and a member in a green coat said, “No running!” Bert said, “We’re not running, we’re walking very fast!” We were one of the first people to get to the ball. We were right there in the first row.
Harmon: My dad won the 1948 Masters, and he said the greatest feeling in the world was walking up the 18th fairway with a five-shot lead. There’s no way you could lose. I told Tiger as a teenager, “Someday, you’re going to experience that.”
Woods: I thought of the [Black] pioneers on Saturday night and as I walked up No. 18. I thought of Ted Rhodes and Grandpa Charlie (Sifford) and all they had to endure to make this happen. I thought of Lee Elder, who was kind enough to be there on Sunday. I’m grateful to a lot people who gave me a chance to play the game I love.
Phil Knight (Nike co-founder and CEO): For me it was golf’s Jackie Robinson moment. Clifford Roberts said that the golfers are white and the caddies are Black, and it will always be so. That goes back to 1934. Now it’s 1997, and here’s the first African-American golfer to come up 18 with an insurmountable lead.
Doran: We still needed to make par to tie for fifth, but watching Tiger come down, it was just special.
Faxon: He didn’t have a gimme putt to set the record, but he pounded that one in with authority and with confidence like he had all week.
Stankowski: Every time I look back at photos of Tiger’s putt, with his fist in the air and the scoreboard behind him, my name is on that scoreboard (T5, 15 shots back). It’ll always be there.
Kite: I’m proud of finishing second. I beat all the mortals.
Doran: I managed to get one of the first handshakes in congratulating him. I’ll always remember the handshake.
Harmon: I was standing behind the 18th green with his mom and dad. I had tears in my eyes because here he was coming up the 18th hole with a huge lead. We had had that conversation years before and here it was coming to fruition.
Woods: It was a sense of accomplishment, but it was also a fulfillment of a lot of hard work and dreams. Every player growing up dreams of winning the Masters.
O’Connor: Tiger fell into his dad’s arms.
Rick Lipsey (Sports Illustrated): They were like strangling each other. Earl was crying.
Kindred: Tiger was in tears.
Feherty: You’ve got two Black men hugging each other behind the green at Augusta National. There’s something special about that. For a 21-year-old to do what he did was extraordinary. For a Black 21-year-old to do it, it defies description.
Knight: The Earl-Tiger hug is confirmation of this is everything we worked so hard for. Earl had raised him for that moment, and he had come through for him. Golf was really a white man’s sport. And in that moment it changed. They did it. It was reflected in that hug.
Elder: I was standing along the walkway to Butler Cabin. Tiger saw me and said, “Hey Lee! Come on over here.” We embraced. I said, “Congratulations, champ. I knew it would happen.”
Reilly: Then Tiger goes to the champion dinner. The members are already seated and in walks the champion. I looked in the back and saw all the waiters, all the bus boys, and even the cooks had come out to see him. A couple of cooks were holding their oven mitts under their arms and waiters put down trays and dishwashers took off their yellow dishwashing gloves and applauded. That just has never happened. That was a seminal moment in American sports.
A mixed-race 21-year-old had won the Masters with a record score of 270. Woods became the youngest champion in the history of the event and won by the widest margin ever (12 shots). On average, he drove the ball 25 yards longer than anyone else, leaving himself with nothing more than a 7-iron into the par-4s all week. He didn’t three-putt. It was the most-watched golf broadcast ever; 43 million viewers tune in, a record that stands to this day. In the course of four days, the sport changed forever.
Bamberger: There’s too much going on here. Is it the 12 shots? Is it that he’s 21? Is it that he’s got an African-American father and a Thai mother, and he’s doing it at this club that has a difficult, tortured history with race? What would it mean? Where would the game go?
Stankowski: It was clear after that week that we were watching greatness. He was going to have his way with us.
Feherty: Players aren’t meant to do that. You’re supposed to slow down when you’re far enough in front and act like a human being.
Reilly: We had no idea of what kind of an athlete we had.
O’Meara: At the time, everybody wanted to be like Ken Griffey Jr. or Michael Jordan. All of a sudden, everybody wanted to be like Tiger Woods.
The extraordinary week wasn’t without its controversy. As Woods continued to chase records on Sunday, 1979 Masters champion Fuzzy Zoeller was asked for his thoughts about the record-setting performance. “That little boy is driving well and he’s putting well,” Zoeller told CNN. “He’s doing everything it takes to win. So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it. Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.” Zoeller would later apologize. He declined to comment for this story.
Jariah Beard (Augusta National caddie; looped for Zoeller in 1979): I got calls from all over the world asking me if I thought he was a racist. I can’t say that he is. What I can say is that I knew he was a prankster. Always was.
Bamberger: Months later I saw Fuzzy on his farm in Indiana. He had tried the joke out on the staff of the Augusta National champions locker room, and those guys laughed at it. He didn’t realize it was going to be taken the way it was.
O’Connor: I think there were people at the club and in that sport that felt the way. Fuzzy just happened to say it in trying to joke about something that was entirely unfunny.
Knight: The first ad we did with Tiger, we included something about the courses he could still not play because of his race. That came out of the conversation we had with him and his father. Then when we ran into that problem with Fuzzy Zoeller; that stuff really bothered Tiger. He kept that under the hood for a lot of his career. He handled the aftermath of the Fuzzy Zoeller comment on his own. He’s a lot better at PR than I am.
Beard: I started caddying at Augusta National when I was 14. It was a plantation environment, always, but I thought they were making changes.
O’Connor: The club only had one Black member at the time. They had no female members. That tells you it’s a very exclusionary place. The only reason they had the African-American member was because they didn’t want to lose the Masters. There had to be people at the club who were not thrilled about the fact that the next superstar in golf was an African-American.
Bamberger: A year later, I was at a friend’s house. His father was an Augusta National member. He took my story out of his shirt pocket and reads the bit about how the old green coats were stewards of the club for many years, and they did a good job but must recognize that the most powerful person in the game is this 21-year-old kid. The father says, “You come into my house having written this?” It must have gotten under his skin, and the reason it did was it was probably true.
Reilly: Tiger was this young, Black professional hitman of golf who was not going to let anything stand in his way of becoming the greatest golfer of all time. Sucked into it was the desegregation of Augusta National. They got dragged — kicking and screaming — into the 20th century by this hurricane of an athlete.
Player: Golf had always been a white man’s sport. Now you had a person of color as a major champion. It was a beautiful example to set.
Kindred: That’s the way it’ll be remembered — the first Black [to win] at a place that once excluded Blacks. In a game that basically excluded Blacks.
Jackson: It gave a lot of hope for Blacks in golf. It opened doors. It opened people’s minds. It opened private clubs.
Dorman: Social issues and sports make an uncomfortable marriage sometimes, but they are a reflection of our society. When there’s a breakthrough, it’s important to note it. There was a breakthrough at the ’97 Masters.
Woods: I think about it when I return to Augusta and remember what a cool experience it was. The tournament, the fans, hugging Pop and seeing my mom when it was over and what it meant for the minority players that came before me. I’ll never forget that week.
Michael Bamberger, Josh Sens, Pete Madden, Josh Berhow, Jeff Ritter, Coleman McDowell and Ryan Asselta contributed additional reporting.