Color just first on day of broken barriers

April 14, 1997|By John Eisenberg

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It was supposed to be a story about a color barrier coming down, about a minority golfer winning the Masters for the first time.

That, it was; the social implications of Tiger Woods' victory yesterday at Augusta National are what makes it one of the most important stories of this or any year in sports.

Coming up the 18th fairway, Woods said a prayer of thanks for the African-American golfers who had come before him, then had the grace to tell reporters he wasn't the pioneer.

But as deeply moving and important as all that surely was, it was dwarfed in the end by his golf.

The fact that an African-American golfer won the Masters is remarkable, but the way he won was even more remarkable.

Woods didn't just win; he put on a four-day display of skill, nerves and mental discipline that ranks with the best performances of any athlete in any sport.

He shot the lowest score in the history of the Masters, a tournament that began in 1934.

He became the tournament's youngest winner; at 21, he was supposed to be a senior at Stanford.

And he won by 12 shots, for crying out loud!

Only once before has a golfer won a major by so much: That was Old Tom Morris, who took the British Open by 13 strokes in '62.

And that's 1862, sports fans, not 1962.

That's right, Woods' performance was so historic that he was challenging a record set during Abraham Lincoln's presidency.

That's just before Cal Ripken's streak started.

Woods, who finished at 18-under-par, was so far ahead at the end yesterday that he could have gone back out on the course after his round, played the last three holes again in par and still used fewer strokes than anyone else.

Ah, the ol' three-hole handicap.

A golfer winning the Masters by 12 strokes is like a baseball team clinching its division title in July and sweeping through October without losing a game.

Woods blew away the course, the field and the Masters' hallowed history.

"I dreamed about winning the Masters when I was a little kid, but I never dreamed about winning it like I did," Woods said. "I dreamed about winning it in a playoff with [Nick] Faldo or [Jack] Nicklaus but I never thought I'd have a lead like I did. It was nice to have that become a reality."

He led by three strokes after the second round, nine strokes after the third round and 13 strokes with two holes to play yesterday. A late birdie by Tom Kite, the runner-up, cut the final margin to 12.

Woods, who has studied golf history, knew with two holes to play that he needed two pars to break the tournament record of 17-under, which was set in 1965 by Nicklaus and tied in 1976 by Raymond Floyd.

It came down to a four-foot putt for par on the 18th green, but Woods was dead-on accurate, as he was all week from that treacherous distance.

The Masters' 72-hole record is perhaps the toughest in all of golf; besides Nicklaus and Floyd, no golfer had ever shot better than 14-under here.

Woods' record probably will stand for years -- unless Woods breaks it again himself.

"He will win many more Masters," Nicklaus said. "He's out there ** playing another game."

Golf will never be the same. Woods' huge gallery was a human zoo again yesterday, as it was all week. Jack Nicholson was buzzing around in a cart. The crowd ran 10-deep at times.

Woods was oblivious. His powers of concentration were the most stunning part of his win. With history and humanity swirling around him, he never blinked.

Playing the course as astutely as a 20-year veteran, he hit almost all of his drives in the fairway and almost all of his approach shots within 20 feet of the hole.

He was always on the offensive, almost never in trouble.

The half-dozen putts that he barely missed would have pushed his score into orbit.

Kite finished up in front of him and hung around the 18th hole to see him set the record.

"A historic thing," Kite said. "I wanted to see it."

Woods putted out, came off the green and embraced his parents. His choked up during a long embrace with his father. Finally, his emotions came pouring out as the significance of his achievement began to hit him.

Lee Elder, who broke the color barrier at the Masters 22 years ago, flew in from Florida just to watch Woods win. The two spoke just before Woods teed off.

"It meant so much to have him here," Woods said. "If it wasn't for Lee and Charlie Sifford and the other guys coming before me and knocking down the doors, I wouldn't have had the chance to pursue my dream. I love those guys and I respect them and I owe what I have to them."

What does he have now? Well, he has a green jacket symbolizing the Masters championship. He has a record that some thought would never be broken.

He has a place in history.

Fifty years after Jackie Robinson changed sports in America, golf finally has a minority champion.

That it took so long is embarrassing, pathetically so.

But when it finally happened this week, was it ever something to see.

Sporting prodigies

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