Great Sporting Moments: Tiger Woods wins the US Masters Augusta, Georgia, 10-13 April, 1997

With hindsight, it was just one major among many. At the time, it was a breakthrough that shook the world. A spectacular new talent had arrived – and our whole idea of what golf is had been turned upside down. James Lawton on the day Tiger Woods stunned Augusta
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The Independent Online

You couldn't say that it was Tiger Woods's Pygmalion moment, because it had been known since he was three years old that he had got it – a genius for hitting a golf ball, that is.

None the less, as his tee shot rifled cleanly down the slope of the 10th fairway at Augusta in 1997 and rested perfectly for the approach to a tight and often treacherous green – setting himself up, after an uncertain start, for his first birdie of the round – you could see plainly a new zip in the easy, athletic stride of the 21-year-old as he went off down the hill.

There was an additional consequence. It was that golf would never be the same again. Some of the inferences that would be taken outside the course would prove to be exaggerated – he wouldn't overnight turn drivers and irons into artefacts of the ghetto – but the same could not be said of his impact on the game, which he was about to dominate more profoundly than any player in history.

A whole new prototype was about to be drawn up and much of it would be written in poetry.

Four days later, after becoming the youngest ever US Masters champion and beating the record score of Jack Nicklaus, he confirmed it was indeed at the 10th that he had grasped what he had been doing wrong – and how it was threatening to turn his first major golf tournament as a professional into a sickening anticlimax.

"I was swinging too long, way too long for me," he said after laying down the foundation stone of the greatest golf empire the world is ever likely to know. "From then on, everything worked pretty damn well."

"Pretty damn phenomenal" anyone who was there that April would have had to say, even if some of those wearing the green jackets that signified membership of Augusta National did so through gritted teeth.

Phenomenal, certainly, and also somewhat mystical, because the Tiger at times appeared to be playing another game, one lapping around and engulfing the finest professionals of the day.

The details of his triumph are now lodged in the psychology of golf. He finished 18-under, one better than Jack Nicklaus's record of 32 years earlier, and the winning margin of 12 strokes seemed laughable, absurd. It had only been exceeded in a major tournament once before, and that was by one of the fathers of the game, Old Tom Morris, at the Open of 1862.

Woods, though, had not only joined the legends of golf. He had made a revolution, and now, 12 years and 14 major titles later, he still belongs to an elite of his own, which has a membership of one.

There was a theory of the briefest life that what happened was freakish, that Augusta's formidable, beautiful course was peculiarly receptive to Tiger's long drives, exquisite iron game and uncanny putting touch, and that he would not reproduce such prowess on the courses of the US Open, the Open and the US PGA.

This was one of two mythologies that sprang up amid the pines and the dogwoods. The other was that the Tiger's triumph was of huge significance to black America. If Tiger could do it, why not so many others who had been long denied a chance at the game of the American country club crowd?

This has proved a forlorn projection, and you suspected it might be so after the third day of the tournament in Augusta, by which time the Tiger led by nine shots, and gnarled rivals – the average age of the field was 38 that year – were making jokes to cover their embarrassment at being rendered so impotent.

The suspicion was formed on an early-evening drive through black Augusta, on the other side of town from the detached houses with their manicured lawns and star-spangled flag poles. You saw the kids in the streets playing pick-up basketball, on street corners discussing affairs, but you didn't see a hint of any awareness that one of their number had invaded middle-class America and brought it to its knees.

There was a good reason for this. Tiger Woods wasn't really of their number. The Tiger – unlike Lee Elder, the first black American to play Augusta in 1975, when the rules insisted he receive an invitation after winning on the PGA tour – didn't know the ghetto; had never been near one.

He grew up in one of the more comfortable sections of the suburban sprawl of Los Angeles. His father was of mixed blood and a combat officer in the US Army. His mother was Thai. He went to school at Stanford, the alma mater of John McEnroe, the son of a Fifth Avenue lawyer.

At three years old, he famously won a pitch-and-putt tournament, and this led to an appearance on local television. No, he didn't come fighting through the ghetto. Yet, however flawed was the symbol some chose to make of him, it was still true that he represented extraordinarily vivid evidence that some talent is capable of smashing any barrier.

The "green jackets" who were now obliged to defer to him and his instant celebrity would no doubt have been less eager to jettison the values and the precepts of their founder, Clifford Roberts, if Woods had not single-handedly annexed their fabled tournament and brought to it unprecedented attention.

Roberts, who eventually shot himself near the cabin that was built for President Eisenhower, once declared: "As long as I'm alive, golfers will be white and caddies will be black."

This was consistent with his theory that Brazil was a state doomed to failure because it was founded on mixed blood. His reaction to the sight of Woods being trailed by a white man with a fluffy grey moustache carrying his bag can only be speculated upon. Woods would soon fire Mike "Fluffy" Cowan, whose eccentricities where deemed something of a distraction, as he would Butch Harmon, a famous coach who was part of the golf aristocracy (his father Claude won the 1948 Masters).

It was as though the Tiger was underlining both his self-belief and his independence from any group who tried to assume proprietary status in an enterprise that he considered entirely the product of his own dedication and his father Earl's care. However, it was still true that Woods, for all his unique experience, could not shed his skin, and there was a touching moment when he was being escorted to the Butler Cabin to be presented with his green jacket by the 1996 champion, Nick Faldo.

Woods saw the veteran Elder and walked over to embrace him – and to say: "Thank you for making this day possible ... Thank you for being so strong."

As the young champion was swept on by the officials and a growing entourage, Elder's eyes moistened. He later said it was the second time in his life that he had been struck by such emotion. The first was when he met Muhammad Ali.

"Ali was a great inspiration to me when I was young and trying to make my way in golf and life – and what this young man has done over the last few days has been amazing. He makes all the struggles seem worthwhile. He proves that you cannot forever bar the way of people who have talent just because they may be different in some way. Tiger is an example to any young person; not everyone can have his talent, but they can have his determination to make something of themselves."

The weight of the old golfer's emotion was not hard to understand. Lee Elder was born one of 10 children in a poor quarter of Dallas and lost his father in the Second World War. His mother died three months later, and he was moved across the country to an aunt in Los Angeles.

This wasn't the Tiger's LA. It wasn't shopping malls and municipal golf courses and well-staffed schools. Elder fended for himself in the ghetto and picked up odd jobs as a caddie. For him, the rise of Tiger Woods would be a fantasy that came to pass. Elder's assessment of the Tiger was shared by the great Nicklaus, who always predicted a significant career for the young player who now seems so likely to surpass his own all-time record mark of 18 major title wins – but also admitted that no one could have anticipated quite such a stunning arrival at the top of the game.

Nicklaus's rating of Woods came from a rather different perspective. He himself grew up in Columbus, Ohio, the son of a pharmacist. In the cruel mid-west winter, Charlie Nicklaus helped his son with the braziers which unfroze the tees at their local course – and built a mini-driving range in the basement. It was something Jack shared with the Tiger, the support of a father who believed his son had a higher destiny. In Augusta in 1997, however, Nicklaus heard the footsteps of his successor.

He said: "He's more dominant over the guys he is playing against than I ever was over the ones I competed with. He is so long, he reduces the course to nothing – absolutely nothing."

When it was over, when the beaten golfers retreated down Magnolia Drive in more disarray than ever before and Augusta returned to being a sprawling, sleepy little southern town for another 11 months, analysts set about their work of bringing technical confirmation of the startling evidence gathered by the naked eye.

The Tiger, from that moment of self-discovery on the 10th tee, had indeed been playing a different game. It was one that provoked the Swedish player Jesper Parnevik, who finished 19 shots back, to say: "Unless they build Tiger's tees 50 yards back, he's going to win the next 20 of this championship."

It was hyperbole, of course, but it came from a deep, wide well of astonishment. The most dramatic of the statistics was that Woods' average drive stretched to 323 yards – 25 yards longer than his nearest rival.

Fuzzy Zoeller, the former Masters and US Open champion, who long had a reputation for being one of the tour's most amiable souls, apparently felt so swallowed up by the sea of praise for Tiger he made what he insisted was a joke, saying to a television crew: "Tell him not to serve fried chicken and collard greens at the champion's dinner – or whatever the hell they serve." If it was a joke, it misfired desperately. Tiger, already, was a deity of not just golf but all of sport.

Two British golfers, Faldo and Colin Montgomerie, also fell victim to the new and blinding aura of the Tiger. Faldo was Woods' player partner on the first day when the prospective champion suddenly moved on to another plane, and on Saturday, Montgomerie, who had been going well in second place, formed with Woods the leading pair. For both Montgomerie and Faldo, the trauma of seeing someone so young playing a game to which they couldn't aspire, never could and never would, lingered for some time. Faldo shot 81 the day after seeing close up the scale of Woods' game. So did Montgomerie.

Before the tournament Monty had unwittingly set up a revealing example of Woods' fierce competitive streak and his unwillingness to forget easily a perceived slight. Montgomerie told reporters that, while Woods obviously had a remarkable game for someone so young, he was now heading for a severe learning curve. "Against the more experienced professionals, Tiger cannot expect immediate success," he said. "He has things to learn. In the tight situations, his lack of experience will go against him."

Months later, Tiger was asked if it gave him a special satisfaction to play so far ahead of Montgomerie so soon after those remarks. There was a short pause before Woods leaned forward, beamed and said: "Big-time."

What was most extraordinary about the Tiger's triumph, though, was that dramatic change that came over him after a first nine holes that had pointed him not towards history but the cut. Did he see a burning bush in the pines on his way to his first birdie of the tournament, an 18-footer at the 10th? No, he just corrected his swing.

At the first tee, a huge, expectant gallery had gathered to see the three-times US amateur champion, among them Michael Jordan, the basketball megastar and golf fanatic, who had visited Woods in his rented house and said, rather unoriginally: "Away to go, champ."

Jack Nicholson, an inveterate fan of the adrenalin rush that comes before a big fight or basketball game, was also there, drawn by the hype surrounding a potential new wonder golfer.

The gallery was underwhelmed, though, when the Tiger made his first drive. He went into the trees and he bogeyed. He bogeyed the 4th, the 8th, the 9th. He was all over the place. His face was taut and his language not entirely correct.

"It was not what I expected to happen," he admitted later. "I was tight, and that was because the drive wasn't working. It took me a while to figure it out. Then I began to shorten it. It became perfect. Then things began to work out."

Then things started to move into another dimension. Amen Corner, the heart of the tournament as the field swings for home, had not known such excitement for 13 years, not since Nicklaus, at 46, had won his sixth and last Masters title.

Suddenly, Tiger was glowing as brightly as the azaleas. A great roar greeted his birdie at the 12th, the iconic hole where the players walk over a stone bridge anxiously looking for the quality of their lies.

Here, the Woods drive had not been perfect. It flew to the back of the green, offending the principle that he had tried to hammer into his brain after previous, unsuccessful visits to Augusta as an amateur – always keep the ball below the pin. It was of no consequence, however, because if the drive was slightly flawed the chip to the hole was perfect. It was another birdie, another gathering of confidence.

He birdied the 13th immaculately, but it was at the 15th that the cheers were so loud they rolled across the course as though Nicklaus were coming, striding over the brow of a fairway and carrying infinite possibilities. Now it was the Tiger not the Bear who carried such promise, and now he made eagle. He finished birdie-par. It was a back nine of 30, a coruscating charge into the heart of the tournament.

The first-day leader John Huston evaporated on Friday with a catastrophic 15th – a 10 on the par five where Woods had a few minutes earlier scored another eagle. Woods had the lead. Woods had everything a golfer might want and more. His length off the tee was staggering, so awesome that he was playing into the greens of par-five holes with a wedge or a short iron. He was making a nonsense of the field, the course and the game, and even at that early point the elders of Augusta were drawing up their first plans to "Tiger-proof" the course.

By Saturday, the tournament was all but over. Montgomerie marched glumly a few paces behind the Tiger and later told a press conference: "We're all humans in this room. It is not humanly possible to beat Tiger now." No, he said, there was no chance of a repeat of the 1996 tournament's last day, when Faldo overhauled an unravelling Greg Norman who had started the day six shots ahead. There were three main reasons for this. One, Woods led by nine strokes. Two, Faldo had already gone from the tournament, dazzled in the headlights of the Tiger's game. Three, Tiger Woods wasn't Greg Norman.

Paul Azinger, another playing partner/victim, was philosophical about the great divide that had been carved through the pines and the red soil. "We learnt something about this young man that nobody who plays against him can ever forget. However high the bar is raised, he's going to find a way to get over it."

Paul Stankowski, 10 shots back, could only make a joke. "I have a chance. All I have to do is make five or six birdies on the first two or three holes."

The last round lacked only ticker tape. Outside the course, there was frenzy, one ticket scalper being reported to have demanded $10,000 for a single ticket – and got it. The Tiger went steadily over the front nine, parring each one in the knowledge that only an earthquake could spoil his day. But he wanted Nicklaus's record and at Amen Corner the poetry surfaced again – birdies at the 11th, the 13th and 14th and, finally, a par at the 18th which brought a 69 for the record low of 270.

His father embraced him at the 18th. The big soldier was exultant. He made a fleeting reference to race when the jacket was slipped over the Tiger's shoulders and said: "Green and black go well together, don't they?"

But everyone knew well enough – deep down, no doubt, even Fuzzy Zoeller – that there was really no colour scheme attached to this victory. Lee Elder, naturally, saw it as a moment to savour because it had so much to do with his own battles and yearnings. The truth was that if Tiger Woods represented anybody or anything it was only himself and the enduring quality of supreme talent.

Tiger Woods hadn't made a new game. He had merely extended its horizons. Twelve years on, his gifts remain untrammelled by injury and advancing years, and the astonishing thing is that still, when the Tiger takes his place on the first tee, it as though it is 1997 all over again. The world feels young again and filled with the most exciting possibilities.

When the young Jack Nicklaus first emerged, the legendary Bobby Jones declared that the man from Ohio was playing a game with which he was not familiar. Nicklaus transferred the tribute to the Tiger, and it is one that is still firmly in place.

It reminds us that his greatest achievement is that he has fulfilled all the promise that he first displayed in Augusta in 1997. No one ever set a higher standard or had less reason to doubt what he had done.