Hallowed holes now are Tiger's territory

Record 1997 win at Augusta started Woods' dominance

Masters

April 05, 2007|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun reporter

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The game Tiger Woods played in winning his first major championship here 10 years ago is far different from the one he will take with him onto Augusta National today for the 71st Masters, when he tees up as a four-time champion and the prohibitive favorite to win again come Sunday.

"I was certainly raw in '97," said Woods, then a 21-year-old rookie eight months removed from the last of his three straight U.S. Amateur championships. "My course-management skills, my shot variety. I really didn't have too many shots. And certainly didn't have the 10 years' experience of play out here on tour as I do now."

It didn't matter.

After a 4-over-par 40 on the front nine of his opening round, Woods played the next 63 holes in 22-under, winning by a record 12 strokes and breaking the tournament scoring record with an 18-under 270. In the nine years since, only one player has come within six shots of that record - Woods in each of his subsequent victories.

"It was a monumental event," two-time and defending champion Phil Mickelson said Tuesday. "The guy shot 40 on the front nine - 40 - and he still broke the record. Incredible."

Most players wouldn't change much after a performance such as that. Not only did Woods change his swing twice, the first time within months of his historic win, but also the way he and others now play the game has been altered drastically in terms of technology and technique. So have the courses they play on, including Augusta National.

Many of those changes began with what Woods did during the 1997 Masters.

"I guess it's all my fault, huh?" Woods joked earlier this week.

It wasn't only the way that Woods, the first player of color to win the Masters, dominated the field, but the way he conquered a course that had rarely been touched in the more than 70 years since it was designed by legendary Scottish golf architect Alister MacKenzie and legendary amateur golfer Bobby Jones.

A private club that had taken in its first black member only seven years before Woods won, the members were still shaken by what he had done to what many of them considered hallowed ground.

"They saw Tiger emasculate the golf course, and they said, `We can't let that happen anymore,'" Hall of Famer Tom Watson said yesterday.

Almost immediately after Woods made his final putt a decade ago, there was talk of "Tiger-proofing" the course. It has been lengthened three times since, most recently last year when tee boxes were moved back on four holes to push the current setup to a hefty 7,445 yards.

"It has taken some of the old character out of the golf course," said Watson, who won here twice, in 1977 and 1981.

But what happened at Augusta National is simply a reflection of what took place throughout the sport as players tried to keep up with Woods, now considered along with Jack Nicklaus the most accomplished champions in history. The courses got longer, the players got stronger and Woods kept winning.

One more thing: The television ratings, especially when Woods was in contention, skyrocketed, as did the purses.

It has been an impressive evolution, even for those smack in the middle of it.

"I don't think I could have imagined the impact that Tiger Woods has had on the game of golf, but I sure am a huge [beneficiary] of it and sure am appreciative of it," Mickelson said. "The types of dollars that we're playing for now were unfathomable to me before he came out."

Mickelson pointed out that the most lucrative tournaments, such as Doral, were not yet eclipsing $2 million in prize money in 1997; now most events offer $6 million, and one, The Players Championship, carries an $8 million purse. The winner of this year's new FedEx Cup format will earn $10 million.

But the most significant part of the legacy is his 12 major championships, six shy of Nicklaus' record. Arnold Palmer recalled playing a practice round that year with Woods, as well as Nicklaus, and the two legends came away thinking that some of the game's most enduring marks, including Nicklaus' six Masters wins, were in jeopardy of being obliterated.

Mark O'Meara shared a house with Woods that year, having befriended Woods a few months before when the younger player had moved to the same neighborhood outside Orlando, Fla. The week before the 1997 Masters, O'Meara saw Woods shoot a 59 during a practice round at Isleworth, their home course.

Then came the opening-round 40 on the front nine at Augusta.

O'Meara, playing in the group behind Woods, was stunned.

"We were sitting on the bench waiting at 15 and he had just made a couple of birdies," O'Meara said yesterday. "I'm looking at him and thinking, `You don't play like that when you play against me at home.' I think he made an eagle at 15 and he was kind of off and running."

O'Meara, who would finish tied for 30th and win the next year, saw Woods remain preternaturally calm throughout the rest of the week.

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