Countdown to the Masters: Dawn of the Tiger

Ten years ago, the sporting world was stunned as a 16-1 shot destroyed the field to win at Augusta. A decade on, he has changed the game forever
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The 10-year anniversaries of Tiger Woods have been coming with a frequency usually reserved for church holidays these past few months. "10 years since Tiger's first pro tournament"... "10 years since Tiger's first pro win"... "10 years since Tiger wins his first million"... And the Woods nostalgia junkies will not be packing up their red polo shirts quite yet.

In May, for instance, Woods will be playing host in Las Vegas to "Tiger Jam" with Bon Jovi headlining the - you guessed it - "10-year anniversary" of the annual concert to raise funds for his foundation (a dedication of "Living On A Prayer" to Phil Mickelson, perhaps?). But with respect to Jon Bon Jovi, it is this week at Augusta where the celebrations will rock around the world with most resonance. For this is where the legend truly kicked in, where the genius of Tiger Woods became a reality and not just golf's promise waiting to happen.

So much has come to pass since that record-breaking week in April, and Woods has wielded such an unprecedented influence on this hitherto most intransigent of games, that it is strange to think of the 21-year-old driving down Magnolia Lane as a 16-1 outsider making his professional debut in the majors. But there he is, all 12 1/2 stone of him, without those imposing muscles of today, but still with that same trademark glare of intent. Yes, it was all there, you just had to look a bit harder for it.

Unsurprisingly, Woods has been hounded recently for his memories of his 12-stroke victory and when cornered by a huddle of British journalists at the Desert Classic in February he did so in two short words - "the hug". Since Dubai, Woods has opened up about the experience more extensively (particularly to Golf Digest, the American magazine to which he remains loyal) and those two words, however heartfelt about the famous embrace with his late father, do not begin to do Augusta, 1997 justice.

The build-up was pretty eventful in itself and but for the lifesaving labours of a surgeon, Woods may not even have been there. "More than anything that week, I was just happy to see Dad there, because he'd had open-heart surgery and had complications," recalls Tiger. "He went back in hospital and actually died, but they revived him. He wasn't supposed to go to Augusta. He said, 'To hell with you guys; I'm going to support my son'."

Earl was not alone as most of those blessed with Masters tickets that year were heading to Georgia with only the new boy wonder on their minds. Woods' dramatic introduction to the paid ranks - two victories and five top fives in his first seven starts - had jammed down the hype button, although interestingly there seemed as many scoffing at his chances. Paul Azinger, then a top-20 player, was so incensed at hearing a local radio show belittling the newcomer's claims that he rang in. "I just wanted to tell the guy that he had it wrong," says Azinger. "Not only could Tiger win, he could win by a lot."

For his part, Woods was thinking no further than the first round and shamelessly dipped into the knowledge of former Masters champions by playing in practice with those such as Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal. The eve of the championship duly arrived and so, by that time, had the nerves. "I couldn't putt a lick," says Woods. "I had the worst speeds, the worst lines, I'm hitting it well, but I just cannot shake it in from anywhere. Wednesday I go to Dad and say, 'Pop, can you take a look at my putting stroke? It feels terrible'. He tells me a couple of things and says, 'Just go out there and do it'. I went to the course in the morning and I was putting better. Then I got to the first tee and my swing left me."

Indeed, Woods' first nine holes are perhaps the most remarkable chapter of the whole story. "I didn't really putt particularly well on the front nine; I didn't hit anything well on the front nine," he says, recounting how he went out in 40 to stand at four-over par. "But I hit a good putt on nine for bogey and found my swing on the 10th tee. I said to myself, 'Just stick with this for nine holes and see if we can get back to even par. Just get to even par somehow'. All of a sudden it happened. I made a bomb on 10, chipped in on 12 and, you know, went through the back nine."

Sensationally, Woods came back in 30, six-under par, for a 70, and at two-under was three off the lead. But already he had made the impression that was to be so lasting. On the Friday afternoon, there were no early mishaps and when he rolled in his eagle putt on the 13th he overhauled the new pacesetter, Colin Montgomerie. Sensing the historic significance of the moment, Jim Nantz, the CBS host, documented it thus: "Let the record show, that a little after 5:30 on this Friday, April the 11th, Tiger takes the lead for the very first time at the Masters."

By nightfall he was three clear of Montgomerie, with only the Scot, apparently, uncertain of which shoulders that year's green jacket was to rest. Montgomerie told reporters: "The pressure is mounting and I have a lot more experience in majors than he has." Alas, the red rag was unfurled and so the bull responded. "It definitely motivated me," confesses Woods. "He had more experience, no doubt about that. But he hadn't won a major, and neither had I. I thought we were on a clean slate."

Four hours later, Montgomerie had nine shots on his tab as Tiger's 65 did unspeakable things to his own 74 and uncatchable things to the rest of the field as he forged a nine-shot lead. Now Monty was contrite saying: "There's no chance humanly possible that Tiger is going to lose this tournament. No way."

Woods, though, still had Greg Norman's capitulation to Nick Faldo the year previous to sleep on and once again turned to his father to apply the brakes to the racing mind. "Dad told me, 'You know what, just go to sleep. It's going to be the most important round of your life, but you can handle it. Just go out there and do what you do. Just get in your own little world and thrash 'em'."

Rather succinctly, Earl had summed up the next 24 hours - minus the emotion, naturally. Lee Elder, in 1975 the first African-American to play at the Masters, had flown in especially and watched with tears in his eyes as Woods pulled further clear.

"After this, no one will ever turn their head again when a black man walks to the first tee," he said. Meanwhile, out on the course, even if there were no opponents in sight, there were still records to be dismantled and it took a fearless four-foot putt on the 18th to post the lowest total in Masters history (270, 18-under).

In the booth, Nantz bellowed "A win for the ages" and all that was left was for the two Woods to find each other for their immortal hug. "For me personally, now that my father is no longer here, that hug is so important to me," said Woods last week. "Looking back I couldn't have done it without him."

Of course, there were other duties for the youngest-ever champion to perform: Faldo handing over the famous cloth, President Clinton phoning up for a chat, the victory dinner. "After that, I just went back to the house and had a few adult beverages," says Woods. "I ended up falling asleep, holding the jacket, cuddling it like it was a little bear. I woke up in the morning, still holding it, and said, 'Huh, I did win it'... And boy, did my head hurt."

And what of the prologue, what happened after the pain-killers had kicked in and the harsh day demanded he do it all over again... and again... and again? Well, Tiger lived up to all the predictions made that week - except the ridiculous, of course. Jesper Parnevik was just one in going way too far in claiming, "he's going to win the next 20 of these", although, in the wake of what he had just witnessed, the eccentric Swede's over-exuberance was understandable. In the event, Woods won three of the next nine and is definitely still counting.

But so, too, might he just run his finger up and down the number of players of African-American descent in next week's renewal. He was the only one in 1997 and now, a full decade on, still finds himself in that miserable minority. Woods, though, is not too downbeat, pointing to the rising numbers of all races, of all classes taking up the game and giving what has long been his two-point explanation for the continued paucity.

"One, it takes time, and two, it's all about building a bigger base," he says. "Like, I've said, it's a pyramid effect. So the bigger the base, the better chance you have of having somebody make it and that takes time because golf wasn't always that popular. I remember when I was in high school, golf was a wussy sport. You weren't cool if you played it. That stereotype is changing, it's evolving and more kids are trying out for golf teams. It takes time." Fortunately, Woods was no respecter of that great clock and at such a slight age, proved himself ready for golf. The question remains whether at such an advanced age, golf was ready for Tiger. Like his rivals, perhaps it is still playing catch-up.

Ten years of change in Tiger's world

Tiger in numbers, before and after the dawn of dominance:

* In 1996, Tom Lehman led the PGA Tour money list with $1,780,159; in 2006, Tiger led it with $9,941,563.

* In 1996, nine players earned more than $1m on the PGA Tour money list; in 2006, 93 players earned more than $1m.

* In 1996 the total prize money on the PGA Tour was $70.17m; this year it will exceed $260m.

* In 1996, the longest driver on the PGA Tour averaged 288.8 yards; in 2006, the longest average was 313.5 yards.

* In 1996, the Augusta National measured 6,925 yards; this year it will measure 7,445 yards.

* In 1997 the first prize at The Masters was $486,000; in 2006 it was $1.3m.

* In 1996, the estimated number of golfers in America was 27 million; now it is believed to be 35 million.

* In 1996, there were 360,000 African-American golfers; now the National Golf Federation puts the number at 820,000.

* In 1996, there were around 100 junior golf programs in America aimed at inner-city and minority children; now there are more than 700.

* In 1996, the world fan base of golf was estimated to be 70 million; now that figure stands at more than 100 million.

* In 1996 Tiger's earnings (on-course and off-course) were estimated at $11m; for 2006 it was estimated at $99m.

Final Scores (1997)

270 T Woods (US) 70 66 65, 69

282 T Kite (US) 77 69 66 70

283 T Tolles (US) 72 72 72 67

284 T Watson (US) 75 68 69 72

285 C Rocca (It) 71 69 70 75

285 P Stankowski (US) 68 74 69 74

History at first-hand: How Tiger's playing partners saw it...


Nick Faldo (England)

Of course, all of us were all eyes for the young genius; we wanted to see what it was all about and if it was all true. He really could belt the ball, but the way he twisted and contorted and went after it so hard made you wonder about his back. I thought, 'if he keeps that up, he won't make 30'. We both made a right mess of the front nine. He was hitting it all over on the front side, in the trees. I'm sure most people were probably thinking, 'Right, he's still in a little over his head'. What he did on the back nine, I guess that was the real beginning of Tigermania. It's nice to have been a part of that. It was quite something.

Woods: 70. Faldo: 75. Leader: John Huston 67.


Paul Azinger (US)

I'd still never seen Tiger hit a shot in person, and I didn't watch him on the first tee or on his approach shot. He got the honour on the second and as he got over the ball, I told my caddie, 'Hey, I'm finally going to watch him hit a shot'. And honestly, the sensation was kind of otherworldly. I mean, he hit this bullet, taking this ridiculous line down the left between this really tall tree and a shorter one. The ball just went extra fast and kept climbing. It stayed in the air forever until it finally disappeared down the hill to some spot where probably no one had ever carried it. And I looked at Mark and said, 'Oh, shit'. My exact words.

Woods: 66 (eight-under, leader). Azinger: 73 (two-under)


Colin Montgomerie (Scotland)

Walking to the first tee I was as nervous as I've ever been; I was in awe of the young man. Tiger hit it and there was a chorus of amazed boos as his drive flew the fairway bunker with miles to spare. But we both started with fours and as we left the green I thought to myself, 'I can handle this'. Then came the 575-yard second and that was the last I saw of him. He hit a drive that in my mind's eye is still bounding down the fairway. Many players arrive at the point he reached there, but they get there in two shots rather than one. I realised then the course was made for Tiger. He returned the easiest of 65s. I was mesmerised by what I knew was history in the making. I was shell-shocked rather than angry.

Woods: 65 (15-under, leader). Montgomerie (74, three-under)


Costantino Rocca (Italy)

It was a fantastic day. How could it not be? I was playing with the best golfer in the world. I had never seen such speed through impact. I could not believe how far he hit his drives. And he hit a six iron to one par three into the wind when I hit a one iron. He played a different kind of game. I remember thinking, 'If he learns how to control his wedges, we're all playing for second place forever'. We didn't speak much during the round. That was probably the pressure. I remember the drive he hit on the par-five eighth hole. He hit it so far he had a four-iron to the green. He hit left of the green, but from there he hit a low, running shot with his four-iron to within two feet and made a four. Two four-irons in a row, very different. He had great imagination.

Woods: 69 (18-under, winner). Rocca: 75 (three-under) Sources: Golf Digest; The Real Monty by Colin Montgomerie.