The arc of history may be long, but sometimes one moment has the weight to bend it. Twenty years ago, Tiger Woods, 21, walked off the 18th green at Augusta National having shattered more than the event’s scoring record. With his victory at the 1997 Masters, he broke a racial barrier, becoming golf’s first major champion of African-American descent. And he did it at a private club whose co-founder, Clifford Roberts, once said, “As long as I’m alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black.”
Woods’s four-day score of 270 (18-under par, 12 shots clear of the field) led to a Butler Cabin ceremony rich in symbolism. “Green and black go good together, don’t they?” Woods’s father, Earl, remarked, as Tiger slipped on the green jacket—and 44 million Americans watched on TV.
Never afraid of hyperbole, Earl had predicted that Tiger would “do more than any other man in history to change humanity.” Yet in the first round, Woods played more like a lost child than the Chosen One. In his opening nine, he found pine straw more than fairway and made the turn with a 4-over 40. On the 10th tee, he shortened his backswing a bit and fired a 30. Tiger flipped a switch—and the lights went out on the field.
After a Friday 66, the weekend was a two-day victory march. Driving it 323 yards on average for the week—an astounding 25 yards farther than the next longest bomber—Woods turned Augusta National into the world’s most exquisitely groomed pitch-and-putt. Twice that week he reached the par-5 15th hitting driver-wedge. And he never once three-putted Augusta’s quicksilver greens.
The golf world watched with a mix of awe and resignation. “There’s no chance,” said Tiger’s third-round playing partner Colin Montgomerie, after Woods waxed him by nine strokes on the day. “We’re all human beings here.”
On Sunday, Tiger wore red, then donned a layer of green—a wardrobe change that marked a new era. (He would add three more green jackets.)
His victory inspired today’s generation. To again win the Masters, Woods, now 41, would have to overcome both his demons and a field of stars—Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth—who grew up idolizing him but who don’t fear him. To defeat their likes at his age for a fifth green jacket—well, that might be even more wondrous than the way he captured his first.