Woods' triumph changes shape of golf overnight

Andy Farrell reports from Augusta on the Master who is that rare individual capable of taking a sport into a new dimension
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It is a rare occurrence when a sport enters a different dimension virtually overnight. In fact, it took four days to transform the game of golf and capture the global imagination, but anyone who witnessed the power and grace of a certain 21-year-old as he left the Masters field behind him will be able to say in future years that they saw Tiger Woods' first major. For there will be many, many more to come.

As an extraordinary performance unfolded, it was difficult not to make seemingly extravagant comparisons. Such as the way Bob Beamon took the long jump into a different realm, or the way Bjorn Borg played another game entirely.

As frightening as a man of his tender years winning his first major championship as a professional by the little matter of 12 strokes is, at least it was beyond the wildest dreams of even Tiger Woods. "I've always dreamt of winning the Masters," Woods, newly coated in his Green Jacket, said.

"I never thought I would have a lead like I did. You envision duelling it out with Nicklaus or Watson or Faldo, someone who's awfully tough to beat down the stretch, or birdieing the last three holes to get into a play-off, but never to do it in the fashion I did."

Woods, the youngest-ever winner at Augusta, did so by breaking Jack Nicklaus's largest winning margin by three shots and Nicklaus's and Ray Floyd's low score by one. These are records that only Woods, the second player to win his first major as a pro, can think of breaking in the future.

Nicklaus's record of six Masters titles is also in danger, and the Bear knows it. "I have never known any young man handle pressure as well as him," Nicklaus said. "Not only does he live up to his publicity, he outperforms it."

Everyone knew Augusta was made for Woods' power game, but there were enough suspicious people in the game who wondered whether he had enough experience of Augusta itself and major championships in general. Now we know. As when Nicklaus came on the scene in the 60s, there is a new standard. Worryingly, for the Ryder Cup at Valderrama in September, Europe's best two players, Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie, both shot 81s the day after playing with Woods.

Faldo is the ultimate modern professional and a man whose goal is eventually to win all four of the major championships. So far the Englishman has won two of them, the Masters and the Open Championship, three times each. The Grand Slam, winning all four majors in the same year, may have been achieved in tennis, but it was thought impossible in professional golf. Not any more.

"Whether it is realistic or not, I can't tell you, but I think it can be done," Woods said. "Take Phil Mickelson last year. He won four times. If you win the right tournaments four times, then you have a slam. It's difficult because they are majors, with the best players in the world, under the most extreme conditions. But I think if you peak at the just the right times, a lot like Nicklaus used to do, and have luck on your side, then who knows?"

The nearest anyone has come to raising their game for a particular week since Nicklaus is Faldo, but Woods was the one who threw the switch at the turn on Thursday. Four over for the first nine holes, Woods played the last 63 holes in 22 under. Faldo missed the cut. Both spent the previous week preparing for Augusta, both had the greens at their respective homes in Orlando shaved to Masters speed.

Only Woods shot a 59, beating Mark O'Meara's course record at Isleworth by five shots. "I busted my tail to try to get ready and when I got here, I was ready to go," Woods said. "It does help when you shoot a 59 at home. When a person has the time and ability to prepare, then a person can win a tournament."

Brad Faxon, by contrast, spent the week winning the Freeport McDermott Classic in New Orleans. "I don't have the ability to control when I am going to play well," Faxon said. He missed the cut at Augusta. During the week of his first tournament as a professional last year - when he was 60th, but has not been worse than 31st since - Woods gave an interview on television to Curtis Strange, the double US Open champion turned commentator.

In the interview, Woods repeated his mantra, that he is looking to win every tournament he plays, and that he is not interested in finishing second or third. "But, on tour, second or third is not too bad," Strange said. Woods concurred, but restated his original premise. Strange laughed. "You'll learn," he said. It is Strange and his Tour colleagues who have to come to terms with the fact that the age of equality is over. The dominance of one player, thought to have died out in golf, is back.

Woods has not played at the three other sites of this year's majors: Congressional in Washington for the US Open, Royal Troon for the Open and Winged Foot, New York, for the USPGA. Augusta, with no rough, is perfectly suited for Woods, allowing him full reign to unleash his power off the tee, but that will not be the case with these venues. That just means he may not win by a record margin.

Woods' victory came on the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking into the major leagues, 22 years after Lee Elder became the first black golfer to play in the Masters and seven years after Augusta admitted their first black member. "That's why this victory is even more special," Woods, an Afro-Asian, said. "Seeing Lee Elder before I played meant a lot. I looked up to him, and Charlie Sifford, and because of them I am able to play the PGA Tour and live my dream.

"I think winning here is going to do a lot for the game of golf, but I think it will be my age that will be an influence on the game. Young people don't normally pursue golf. Now, hopefully, they will think it is a cool game to play."

As his body grows older and less supple, Woods will have to throttle back on his swing, just as Nicklaus did. The consequence of not doing so is to end up with serious back problems like Seve Ballesteros. What Woods will always have is the mind of a champion. His father, Earl, used his army background to test Tiger psychologically from an early age. "Tiger has never met anyone as mentally strong as himself, and he never will," Earl said.

After completing his astonishing victory, Woods sank into the arms of his parents. "Every time I hug my mom or pop after a tournament, I know I have accomplished my goal. I know it is over." After Sunday at Augusta, golf as we know it is over.

ANATOMY OF A PRODIGY

1975 Born Eldrick Woods on December 30, the son of Earl, a retired lieutenant colonel in the US Army and his Thai wife, Kultida. Nicknamed 'Tiger' after a Vietnamese soldier friend of his father. Grew up in Cypress, California.

1978 Aged two, appeared on national television putting with Bob Hope.

1979 Aged three, shot 48 for nine holes at Navy GC, Cypress.

1981 Aged five, featured in Golf Digest magazine.

1984 Aged eight, won the International Junior World tournament for the first time. Would win it five more times over the next seven years.

1990 Aged 14, youngest golfer to win the National Youth Classic. Southern California Player of the Year.

1991 Aged 15, youngest to win US Junior Amateur Championship. Wins seven other tournaments. Golf Digest Player of the Year.

1992 Aged 16, becomes only golfer to win second US Junior Amateur title. Plays in the Los Angeles Open on the US PGA Tour. Golf World Player of the Year.

1993 Aged 17, won third consecutive US Junior Amateur and Dial Award as top national high school male athlete.

1994 Aged 18, was youngest to win US Amateur Championship, coming back in the final from six holes down. Won five other titles. Led United States to 11-stroke victory in the World Amateur Team Championship in Versailles. Los Angeles Times Player of the Year and Golf World Man of the Year.

1995 Aged 19, retained US Amateur title. Made the cut in the Masters, his first major championship, and the Open. Member of losing US Walker Cup team at Royal Porthcawl. Stanford University's Male Freshman of the Year.

1996 Aged 20, College Player of the Year, winning eight out of 14 tournaments, including NCAA Championship. Tied record low amateur score at the Open. Only golfer to win three consecutive US Amateur titles, winning the final at the 38th after being two down with three to play. Turned professional in August with contracts worth $43m (pounds 26.8m) from Nike and Titlelist and holed in one during maiden pro event. Won fifth and seventh events on US Tour. First player to have five consecutive top-five finishes for 14 years. US Tour Rookie of the Year and Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.

1997 Aged 21, Won Mercedes Championships, by almost holing in one in play-off with Tom Lehman. Won Honda Asian Classic in Bangkok by 10 shots. Runs away with the Masters in his first major.

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