On April 13, 1997, a 21-year-old golfer in a red shirt officially arrived.
His clothes hung off his rail-thin frame. Beneath a baseball cap, he wore a baby-faced smile. But when Tiger Woods put a tee in the sod of Augusta National Golf Club that spring, everything else about him was grown up. The game of golf would never be the same again.
Woods’s 12-shot victory at the 1997 Masters was a moment that changed the game. It broke down barriers, shifted perceptions and ushered in a new era in sports. It offered the first glimpse of the dominance that was to come. It created an icon the likes of which golf had never seen.
As good as Woods had been as an amateur golfer, winning six consecutive United States Golf Association titles and being named the collegiate golfer of the year at Stanford, few could have predicted what unfolded that spring at Augusta. Even his two victories after turning professional in 1996 didn’t prepare the public for the artistry and power that would be on display at the Masters the following year.
Woods turned Augusta National into little more than a pitch and putt. He hit short irons into par 5s, sand wedges into par 4s, and curled in putts from every angle. The patrons said the sound of his clubs hitting a golf ball made a different noise from the sound of his competitors. They likened it to a lightening strike.
Woods’s African-American and Asian backgrounds made him especially unique at a golf club that was once as white as the walls of its clubhouse. Woods wasn’t the first minority to play in the Masters, but he was the first golfer – of any race – to dominate it the way he did.
In golfing terms, the victory was profound because of the way Woods started the tournament, shooting a 40 on the front nine Thursday and appearing to be in danger of missing the cut. If he had, no one would have thought anything of it. It usually takes golfers years to get the hang of Augusta National’s humps and hollows, and Woods had missed the cut at the Masters in 1995 and 1996.
Somehow, though, Woods forged a turnaround in 1997. After hitting wayward shots for nine holes, he stood on the 10th tee and fixed his swing. Confidence flowed. The birdies did, too. He closed in 30.
From there Woods made a fast climb up the leader board, surging past the biggest names in the game to become bigger than any of them. He shot 66 on Friday, 65 on Saturday and 69 on Sunday, setting a bushel of scoring records along the way.
The golf world would soon undergo massive changes in every area. Woods’s popularity led to a spike in interest in the sport. More people took up the game, including minorities who had long been disenfranchised or disinterested. Junior programs, such as The First Tee, were born. Television coverage of golf increased, notably whenever Woods was playing in a tournament.
Prize money increased, too, as companies jockeyed to sponsor tournaments and advertisers looked to pitch their products on commercials during golf broadcasts.
Suddenly, sports editors were sending two and three reporters at a time to follow Woods’s tournaments.
As Woods became a fitness nut, the golf world followed. His body changed from string bean to NFL safety. Golfers, all of a sudden, became athletes.
Woods’s win at the Masters also changed the way that tournaments looked at themselves. The members at Augusta National, for example, seeing Woods so thoroughly dominate their tournament, began looking at ways to defend their course. Holes were lengthened. Trees were added. Rough, once non-existent at the Masters, was grown in. Other golf courses followed suit as tournaments tried to “Tiger-proof” their layouts so Woods wouldn’t run roughshod over their hallowed grounds.
The tougher the layouts, however, the better Woods seemed to play. Whether the courses were long or short, firm or soft, tree-lined or bare, Woods found a way to decode any mystery. He would win the Masters again in 2001, 2002 and 2005. He would win the 2000 United States Open at Pebble Beach by 15 shots and the 2000 British Open at St. Andrews by eight.
In the 11 years since that first Masters victory, Woods has continued to change. He’s overhauled his swing twice. He’s gotten married and become a father. He’s won 12 more majors, second only to Jack Nicklaus, and he’s taken his game and his sport to new heights.
But no matter where his game goes, and no matter how many trophies he clutches, many will always remember that spring week in Augusta in 1997 as the moment when it all began for Woods. It was a moment that changed the game, a moment that changed the sport forever.