This story on Tiger Woods' win at the 2001 Masters first appeared in the April 16, 2001 issue of Sports Illustrated.
It all felt preordained, inevitable, uneventful even. There wasn't a doubt in the world how this would play out. When it was over, not even the crowd, communicating the tournament's ups and downs through Augusta's acoustic hollows, could muster a truly surprised roar. Tiger Woods holed a 15-footer on 18, won the Masters by two strokes, completed a sweep of the four majors and generally made history. The crowd exited with proper restraint, observing posted signs that said no running (but walking pretty fast all the same), to get home for dinner. There was hardly a sense that the moment ought to be savored or examined. Wasn't he just going to do this again next year?
It's come to this, then: A 25-year-old golfer has made victory in a major so routine that, even in the unthinkable stringing together of four of them, he is denied proper celebration. It will be argued that what he did, beginning with last year's U.S. Open instead of the Masters (he took a mulligan -- so what?), is not really a Grand Slam, as if the term will be degraded to nothing more than a breakfast order if the majors aren't won in a calendar year. But, geez, if winning just one in a career were that easy, then people wouldn't root so hard for the game's second- and third-best golfers, Phil Mickelson and David Duval, who keep finishing runner-up, on their good days.
Only Woods seemed fully aware of what he'd achieved, and that realization suffered a little time lag. You may have seen it, only not recognized its import: Woods, the tournament in hand after Duval and Mickelson had bogeyed 16, was putting the finishing touches on Sunday's 68, hitting his tee shot 330 yards, pitching 75 and then sinking his birdie try. "It was a great putt," said Woods, reconstructing the moment. "It went in, so be it. Then I walked over to the side, and I started thinking, I don't have any more shots to play. I'm done. I just won the Masters." Then he lost it a little and, lest that famous corporate composure be seen to crumble, covered his face with his cap, pulling it together in time to congratulate Mickelson after his two-putt.
It was the only glimpse of his raw desire that Woods allowed last week. Others, like the majorless Mickelson, admitted to "desperately" wanting the Masters. Mickelson, a bold player whose big bets on the golf course sometimes backfire (unlike his wagers in Las Vegas, where he turned $20,000 into a reported $560,000 betting on the Baltimore Ravens to win the Super Bowl), was unwisely naked in his ambition, although he responded to the pressure with three sub-70 rounds (67-69-69) that put him in the familiar position of facing off against Woods. (He's 2-1 in shootouts with Tiger.) Woods, meanwhile, was characteristically coy, complaining of "plodding" rounds of 70-66-68, in which his shots were "fatted" or "bleeders" or otherwise unworthy of further discussion. "Grinding" was how he described his round on Sunday.
This self-deprecation, irritating early in his career when his so-called B game was blowing pretty good golfers out of the water, has become part of his patter. He employs it as reverse braggadocio, making it palatable with winks and grins. What it does, though, is mask the brutal concentration he brings to the game, so intense it doesn't even allow him to realize when he's done for the day. "When you are focused so hard on each and every shot," he says, "you kind of forget everything else."
This intensity is only growing. The nine wins last year and the three in a row this year (after a "slump" in which he failed to win any of eight tournaments) do not signal a golfer satisfied with himself. Woods and his father, Earl, who met at Tiger's home in Orlando for the trip to Augusta, immediately parted ways upon arrival and did not speak again until Sunday, following that last birdie putt. "He was locked in," says Earl. Tiger instead holed up in a house with fellow pro and neighbor Mark O'Meara, reheating dinners that O'Meara's wife, Alicia, had prepared earlier in the week and avoiding all contact with the real world.
If you were persistent, you might have caught sight of him on the practice range, where he would repair after each round, pound balls into the twilight and then scoot away in his courtesy car. The car would be brought to the front of the clubhouse, Woods would slide into the driver's seat, and right before accelerating out the drive, he'd loll his head back against the seat, as if in sudden and complete nervous collapse. Then he'd be gone into the darkness. Or late on Sunday you might have seen tournament chairman Hootie Johnson ushering Woods into the clubhouse for the champion's dinner -- "Don't worry, this won't take long," Johnson said -- and Woods sagging against the wall, as if shot, saying, "I'm a little under the weather."
It could be that it's not so easy being Tiger Woods, though he makes many protestations to the contrary. "You think I'm lying," he said after Sunday's round, "but I actually felt more relaxed this week." He works hard behind the scenes at being the real Tiger Woods, however, developing and practicing shots on the off-chance he might need something special for Augusta.
Take Sunday's tee shot on 13, what he called a high sweeper. "I've practiced on the range all week just in case I might need it," he said. He didn't for three days as he played safely on the par-5, dogleg left. Come Sunday, with only a two-stroke lead on Mickelson, "I had to pull it out. I had to step up and aim another 15 yards farther right and hit that big slinger around the corner to give myself a chance." He birdied the hole to stay two-up. Another trick up his sleeve.
This sort of recourse has to be more discouraging than the field lets on. Woods, however, can tease the competition with his vulnerability, and let's face it, it has been four years since he turned pro and last won the Masters. This time, with the course yielding plenty of birdies and with Woods looking beatable earlier in the season, anybody seemed to have a chance. The wavy-gravy greens, normally so baked that putts roll around like marbles in a skillet, were soft and less catastrophic than ever. Wonderful scores were coming in through two rounds, and the leader board looked very interesting.