• Sal Maiorana

Phenomenal, historic, aptly described Tiger's victory for the ages in 1997 Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. (April 13, 1997) – The one-word headline emblazoned on the cover of Golf World magazine said it all: “Phenomenal.”

This of course, we already knew. We’d known it since the time Tiger Woods was three years old and hitting golf shots on the Mike Douglas Show, or at least since he was five and already breaking 50 for nine holes.

We certainly knew it when he won three straight U.S. Amateur titles in the 1990s while biding his time at Stanford. And we knew it in 1996 when he turned professional, signed what now looks like a bargain-basement endorsement deal with Nike worth $40 million, and won two of the first seven PGA Tour events he entered.


And then during that glorious week in April 1997 when Tigermania was officially born, Woods put on a performance for the ages that had even the azaleas standing up and cheering, a statement of arrival that portended a dominance of the game the likes of which we’d never seen.

Which prompted another wholly appropriate one-word headline, this one on the front page of the Augusta Chronicle: It read “Historic.”

Woods started his first Masters as a 21-year-old professional by shooting 4-over-par 40 on the front nine Thursday, then played the final 63 holes in a mind-boggling 22-under to finish with a record-breaking score of 18-under 270 and an unfathomable record-breaking victory margin of 12 strokes.

“Let’s face it, it’s his time now,” said Jack Nicklaus, who knew a thing or two about this subject, seeing as his “time” spanned about 20 years and 18 major championships. “He’s out there playing another game on a golf course he’s going to own for a long time. Both Arnold and I agree that you could take my Masters and his Masters and add them together (10) and this kid should win more than that.”

That prediction fell short, but Woods returns to Augusta this week as the defending champion for the fifth time (one shy of Nicklaus’ record) after his spectacular victory in 2019 when he ended nearly 11 years of major championship frustration.

Can Tiger win again? Can the winner of 15 majors win another, be it the Masters or elsewhere, now that he is 44 years old with a body that has been broken down and rebuilt too many times to count?

Because it’s Tiger, no one should ever doubt him, but this much we know for sure – no matter what the future holds, there will never be a major championship quite like the first.

When Woods drained that final putt and became the youngest winner of a major, punctuated the victory with what became his calling card fist pump, and then wrapped that unforgettable hug around his now deceased father, it was an iconic sports moment.

And it came 50 years almost to the day after another African-American man did something extraordinary.

In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, forever etching his legacy on sport and society, and now this young man of color had done the same thing. And what better place to do it than Augusta National where for decades and decades the only African-Americans who were allowed to walk the pristine fairways were those carrying the golf clubs, not swinging them.

“It means so much,” said Woods, not at all referring to the importance of his first major championship. “I’m the first (African-American to win the Masters), but I wasn’t the pioneer. Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder, Teddy Rhodes, those guys paved the way for me to be here. I thank them for that. If it wasn’t for them I might not have had the chance to play here.”

Elder was there that day. It cost him a speeding ticket as he rushed to make sure he was at Augusta National to witness history, and it was worth every dollar of the fine.

“The last barrier fell here today,” said Elder, who broke the original barrier by becoming the first black man to play in the Masters in 1975, the year Woods was born. “This is a happy and glorious day for all blacks, for all of us. I always felt I would return here for an occasion like this, not necessarily for this particular young man, but I knew somewhere down the line this day would come.”

It didn’t look like Elder was going to be spending his Sunday afternoon in Augusta after the first nine holes of the first round when Woods made four bogeys and no birdies. “I told him this was just a start,” said Woods’ caddie, Fluff Cowan. “I tried to pump him with positive thoughts. He did the rest.”

Woods rallied with birdies at 10, 12 and 13, then hit a wedge – yes, a wedge – for his second shot at the par-5 15th to within six feet and converted the eagle, eventually signing for a 2-under 70, just three shots off the early pace set by John Huston.

By the end of Friday, Tiger was in the lead by three over Colin Montgomerie thanks to a 66, though Monty wasn’t thinking that was much of a deficit. Of his third-round pairing with the young American, Montgomerie said, “I have a lot more major championship experience than he has. And hopefully I can prove that.”

Woods dusted him in their head-to-head game, 65 to 74, and with Woods taking a nine-shot lead into Sunday, Monty saw the light and said, “There is no chance. We’re all human beings here. There’s no chance humanly possible that Tiger is going to lose this tournament. No way.”

He was right as Tiger closed with a 69 to record the greatest romp in Masters history and the most one-sided major tournament margin since Old Tom Morris won the 1862 British Open by 13 strokes.

“To shoot 18-under on this course is incredible,” said runner-up Tom Kite. “He’s just incredible. I don’t care what race he is.”

“One analyst said we overpaid for Tiger,” a gloating Nike chairman Phil Knight remarked after Woods was fitted for his first green jacket in Butler Cabin. “I wonder what they’re thinking now?”