November 30, 2023


Inspired by sport

Reliving How Tiger Woods Won the 1997 Masters

Tiger Woods says he intends to play in this year’s Masters. Follow updates.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember on the 25th anniversary of Tiger Woods’s seismic victory at the 1997 Masters, the first of his 15 major championships, is that almost no one saw it coming.

Yes, Woods, then 21, had won three PGA Tour events, and there was avid interest in his first major as a professional. But one year earlier, as an amateur, he had missed the Masters cut. In 1995, he tied for 41st. It was accepted wisdom that grasping the intricate nuances of Augusta National Golf Club would take years. Woods, it was said repeatedly by the tour’s elders, would have to wait.

“That’s how I felt,” Paul Azinger, a 14-year tour veteran in 1997 and the winner of the 1993 P.G.A. Championship, said in an interview last month. “It’s harder than it looks.”

Azinger felt differently after he was paired with Woods in the second round. For the first time, he watched Woods hit a ball with a driver. Azinger, now 62, had never seen a golf shot hang in the air for so long as it rocketed away from the tee.

“I can still see that white ball framed against the dark trees in the distance, then the blue sky and then the green fairway — it was a bullet that seemed to never stop,” Azinger, now an NBC golf analyst, said.

The four days of the 1997 Masters would turn out to be a profound experience for those of us fortunate to be on the grounds at Augusta National, and for 44 million people who watched on television. It set records and broke cultural ground, as Woods became the first nonwhite athlete to win golf’s most tradition-bound event. It permanently reshaped almost every aspect of the game, how it would be broadcast and who might watch, and it was the first globally prominent chapter in the life of a young Black man with a catchy nickname who would soon become one of the most famous and most popular people in the world.

Although many remember vividly the moment that Woods won — the 4-foot putt and his full-body fist pump — not everyone recalls that his week began inauspiciously.

During his first nine holes on Thursday, Woods very nearly played his way out of the tournament. He shot a four-over-par 40 with four bogeys and no birdies. I realized it was possible for him to win, but it seemed unlikely. It was Augusta National. It takes time. Almost every enduring, top golfer from the last 60 years — Palmer, Nicklaus, Faldo, etc. — did not win the tournament until his fourth try. Most won in their fifth or sixth. And they weren’t 21, either.

But when Woods then shot 30 on the back nine — and was calm in the news conference afterward, as if he had expected it — that’s when I knew he would be contending on Sunday.

NICK FALDO (defending Masters champion, paired in the first round with Woods) We both made a mess on the front nine; just knocking it all over the place. I had won six majors so maybe people gave me a little slack, but for Tiger, I’m sure a lot of people were probably thinking, “Well, he’s still a little in over his head, isn’t he?”

TOM KITE (finished second) The Tiger curiosity was very high so I have no doubt a lot of guys in the field heard about that opening 40.

TOMMY BENNETT (one of many Black caddies picked by the club from the nearby Sand Hills neighborhood) Somebody told me Tiger shot 40, and I said, “Doesn’t matter, man, he’s not worried.” That kid was raised to be fearless. When I caddied for him in ’95 [at the Masters] he only put three balls in his bag and told me he wouldn’t need any more. And he didn’t. I knew he’d come back.

FALDO Tiger birdied the 10th and chipped in for birdie on the 12th hole. That shot was basically the beginning of the rest of his career.

JEFF SLUMAN (tied for seventh) The chip from behind the 12th green was incredibly difficult. Everybody watching was saying, “He’s got to be careful not to pitch that back into Rae’s Creek and make double bogey.” And bang! He puts it in the hole. Are you kidding?

FALDO The crowds around us started getting bigger and bigger and louder and louder. He seemed to feed off that. It was the beginning of Tiger mania, right? I looked around and realized that this is really something to remember.

Woods would birdie the par-5 13th and eagle the par-5 15th — for the tournament he would be 13 under on the par 5s — then added another birdie on the 17th hole. He finished at two-under-par 70, one of only seven golfers in the field of 86 to break par that day. Woods celebrated by heading to the drive-through of the Arby’s on Washington Road just beyond the club’s ornate front gate. He had two of his Stanford college buddies in the car. After they wolfed down roast beef sandwiches at the house rented with Woods’s parents, Earl and Kultida, they played basketball in the driveway and table tennis in the basement.

KITE The conditions had been so hard the first day — windy with very firm greens — you bet 70 was a good score. People noticed.

AZINGER I suddenly realized how many people were following us and how much pressure he was already under.

LEE WESTWOOD (playing in his first Masters) It was obvious how strong he was mentally, and his age did not matter.

AZINGER We get to the 13th hole on the back nine and he’s now four under par for the tournament, which is not too shabby. Then Tiger goes eagle-birdie-birdie on 13, 14 and 15.

JIM NANTZ (longtime CBS Masters host) Tiger made the putt for eagle on 13 and I looked at my watch thinking this might be a historic moment. I said, “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.”

AZINGER Tiger was hitting a wedge or 9-iron to the greens on the back nine par 5s while some guys were hitting 3-woods there. Tiger looked like he wasn’t more than 155 pounds and his swing was so fierce I worried for his back even then, but my goodness, every shot had such integrity. As pros, we know it when we see it.

JUSTIN LEONARD (1997 British Open champion) We were trying to beat this guy, but I knew I couldn’t drive it as far, I didn’t hit my irons as well, I didn’t have his short game and I didn’t putt as well. You knew you were going to be able to watch history, but you weren’t going to be making any history yourself.

At the midpoint of the tournament, Colin Montgomerie, a sometimes crusty Scot who at 33 had competed in 22 majors and finished in the top 10 five times, trailed Woods by three strokes. In a packed news conference after the second round, Montgomerie said of Woods, “The pressure is mounting, and I have a lot more experience in major championships than he has.”

Before Woods’s third round on Saturday began — he was in the final grouping, the prime TV spot, with Montgomerie — Butch Harmon, Woods’s coach, put his arm around his pupil and said, “Let’s go show Colin Montgomerie who you really are.”

Woods responded, “Oh, don’t worry.”

LEONARD I would have said the same thing as Colin. As professional golfers you have to try to draw on experience if you have it, and Colin had the experience — with some success. But at the end of the day it didn’t matter at all.

Woods, in a 2007 interview on the 10th anniversary of his 1997 victory, said: “Colin’s comment did motivate me. Maybe if he had already won a major I might have let it go, but since he had not, I figured we were pretty even going into that round.”

BERNHARD LANGER (1985 and 1993 Masters champion) I had played in Thailand with Tiger when he was an amateur and it was clear as day that this was going to be a different kind of rookie on tour. In the third round Saturday he shot 65, right? Seven birdies? It doesn’t sound like he was very nervous to me.

SLUMAN He wasn’t afraid of anything. The bigger the stage the better for him. I made a comment when I was in pretty good position on the leaderboard that maybe all the guys on tour should take up a collection and offer to send him to grad school or something.

MONTGOMERIE (after he shot 74 to Woods’s bogey-free 65) All I have to say is one brief comment today. There’s no chance humanly possible that Tiger is going to lose this tournament. No way.

When a reporter recalled that Greg Norman in 1996 had lost a six-stroke, final-round lead to Faldo, Montgomerie snorted: “Faldo’s not lying second, for a start. And Greg Norman’s not Tiger Woods.”

As they had since the tournament started, Woods and his college buddies went to Arby’s. Then they played basketball and table tennis.

Late the next morning, Woods donned what would become his trademark Sunday colors: a blood red sweater and black pants. Before he left for the course, Woods ascended the stairs and entered the bedroom of his father, Earl, who had recently undergone surgery for his ailing heart.

“Son,” Earl said when he saw Tiger, “this is probably going to be one of the toughest rounds you’ve ever had to play in your life.”

The day carried a weight, and when Woods arrived at the course, a visitor found him. It was Lee Elder, the first Black golfer to play the Masters, in 1975. Elder got a speeding ticket on the drive to Augusta. An honorary starter at the 2021 Masters seven months before he died, Elder told reporters in 1997: “Nothing was going to stop me from getting here. I made history here, and I came here today to see more history made. After today, no one will turn their head when a Black man walks to the first tee.”

Henry Ashley, the headwaiter at Augusta National and one of about 20 Black club employees who lined the plantation-style clubhouse balcony to catch a glimpse of Woods on the first tee, told The Greensboro News and Record: “Tiger’s the man, period. He’s your man; he’s my man.”

After Woods thundered a tee shot toward the first fairway, the congregation of club employees remained on the balcony to watch him walk onto the course. As Woods disappeared over a distant hill, the employees, one by one, turned and walked through a single thin door frame to continue their clubhouse duties.

LANGER I don’t know all about American history. But there were a lot of scenes like that in 1997. You know, seeing Tiger win the Masters, I think, in effect, said, “You can do what I’m doing.” I’m convinced it had an impact on future generations that were not white.

COSTANTINO ROCCA (accompanied Woods on Sunday) The mood was festive, like a celebration or a big party. I’m not sure the crowd even knew there was a little Italian guy playing with him. The atmosphere was powerful.

KITE Because the final round of the Masters has seen many historic collapses, nobody was conceding Tiger the title — even if he would have had to collapse like crazy to be caught. But there was still a wait-and-see attitude.

ROCCA I did cut his lead by a stroke after the first seven holes when Tiger made a couple bogeys. Then he hit his tee shot on No. 8 into the trees and I thought maybe there’s some chance. What if I make birdie and he makes double bogey? Instead, I made par and he made birdie.

KITE It was case closed.

SLUMAN From there, a coronation.

NANTZ I talked briefly to Lee [Elder]. There was emotion in his eyes. And fatigue.

ROCCA (tied for fifth) On the last nine holes, the crowd was getting crazier and crazier, and at one point Tiger turned to me and asked if I was OK. He’s a nice guy, and I was proud of him.

NANTZ I kept thinking about how much this moment meant to so many people. It transcended the sport, and seeing Lee Elder was a visual cue to me.

As Woods, his baggy pants flapping in the wind, sank a last putt to set 20 Masters records, including youngest winner and largest margin of victory (12 strokes), Nantz said, “There it is, a win for the ages.”

The victory was transformative, particularly for golf, though not in every way imagined. Designers tried to “Tiger-proof” their golf courses by making them longer and more difficult. Woods’s crossover appeal, long predicted, swiftly materialized. Ten days later, in a sign of his cultural transcendence, Woods gave Oprah Winfrey his first post-Masters interview. He was sent up by “Saturday Night Live.”

Inspired by Woods’s trailblazing achievement, Sean Combs, the rap mogul known as Puff Daddy, called Hype Williams, an award-winning music and film director and producer. Their conversation about what had transpired at Augusta National became the conceit of the hip-hop video “Mo Money Mo Problems,” which also featured the rapper Mase. It was released three months after Woods won the Masters.

HYPE WILLIAMS Puff was very excited about the idea of Tiger Woods and adamant about starting a video with him as a Tiger Woods character. With Mase and Puff, we had the opportunity to let them embellish on Tiger Woods and the big moment that the sport was having in 1997. That’s what it represented. Coincidentally, I just shot Tom Brady’s campaign for his golf line. Tom also happens to be a very serious golfer, and he was heavily influenced by “Mo Money Mo Problems.” He told me he wanted that energy of the original video for his campaign, a ’90s energy that Tiger came to exemplify.

DUSTIN JOHNSON (then 12) When I was growing up, in high school you were kind of a dork if you played golf. But Tiger actually made it a cool sport to play.

Joe Beditz, the president of the National Golf Foundation, saw the impact, including a 22 percent increase in recreational golf participation and a 50 percent jump in the number of nonwhite golfers from when Woods turned pro in 1996 to 2001.

JOE BEDITZ Tiger’s biggest impact, by far, was on golf’s public awareness. He became ubiquitous: TV ads, magazine covers, interviews and television appearances. The ultra-elevated public awareness was the headspring from which all of golf’s blessings flowed — more fans, more golfers, more courses, more equipment sales.

In the same five-year period beginning in 1996, PGA Tour prize money mushroomed by 172 percent, television ratings for the Masters jumped by 58 percent and network cameras tried to capture every shot struck by Woods at any tournament.

NANTZ The idea was to never lose track of Tiger during the entire body of a three-hour broadcast. It was a new era for golf because a golfer was now maybe the most famous athlete in the world.

The pervasive belief in the wake of Woods’s 1997 Masters victory was that it would be a catalyst for diversifying professional golf, which had a well-deserved reputation for exclusionary tactics and biases. The PGA Tour had a Caucasian-only clause until 1961. Elder was not welcomed to the Masters until 14 years later. Woods’s 1997 Masters breakthrough and exploding fame were expected to bring sweeping change. But 25 years later, there are no more than a handful of Black golfers on the PGA Tour.

JARIAH BEARD (one of dozens of Black caddies at Augusta National from 1955 to 1983) We had more Black pros in the 1960s than we do now. In the 1980s, another Black golfer, Calvin Peete, won 12 PGA Tour events. He won the Players Championship and was near the top of the money rankings list almost every year. Tiger came along 10 years later, but how many have followed him?

EDWARD WANAMBWA (an editor for African American Golfer’s Digest and a former caddie for Elder) It was a bit naïve to think there was going to be this sudden influx of African American golfers. Why didn’t the floodgates open? Because elite golf is not a cheap endeavor — the equipment, the travel, the entry fees to tournaments, it’s expensive. There are well-meaning initiatives to introduce the game to junior golfers, but the mechanisms for getting to the tour weren’t there.

BEARD (81, still lives in Augusta) Tiger’s win really helped young white golfers more than Black golfers. The young white golfers made Tiger their hero and emulated his swing, his workout habits, his aggressiveness. They all became better because of Tiger.

GARY WOODLAND (2019 U.S. Open champion) I’ve watched Tiger win that first Masters on an old VHS tape maybe 400 million times.

JOEL DAHMEN (sixth year on the PGA Tour) I’ve watched too many times to count. At least 40. Every time it comes on, I don’t care if Tiger is on the first hole in that final round, I have to watch the whole thing.

WANAMBWA That’s the thing, it was still great to watch a brother — someone who looks like us — slip on the green jacket at Augusta National. It was a win for all the Black caddies and all the Black golfers who never got to play there. That supersedes all the rest.

Woods skipped Arby’s after Sunday’s final round. As is tradition, the Augusta National membership feted the Masters champion and his family at a ceremonial dinner as the sun was setting on the grounds. When Woods got back to his rental house, a party ensued for the tenants and invited guests with no shortage of adult beverages.

At some point late in the night, Woods slipped away from the gathering. Later, Earl Woods went looking for the Masters champion. He peeked into his son’s bedroom and found him asleep on the bed, his arms hugging his green jacket.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.