Words, not shots. That’s what I remember best about Tiger Woods’ 12-stroke victory at the 1997 Masters. The flowery words, not surprisingly, belonged to Woods’ father, Earl.
You saw the kid’s lengthy hug of his father behind the 18th green. What you didn’t see was Earl’s interview with a few reporters that night. At the time he was recovering from triple-bypass surgery in February. Considering that Earl Woods barely made it through a second operation that week, considering that golf is golf and life is life, his son’s 12-shot romp can be viewed as not even the family’s most impressive victory of that year.
Hearing the father then, he got a glimpse of the other side.
“Death is not very far away, and I was there and I said no,” said the elder Woods, then 64. “When I came back (from the dead), my surgeon said, ‘You are a true warrior,’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘I have been where the ultimate competition exists.’ And I found out that the competitor was me, and I was competing for my life and I won.”
Talk about an up-and-down from Amen Corner.
Tiger knows better than anyone. He talked about his father’s Lazarus deal last week.
“He was actually dead for a while, and then somehow . . .” Tiger said. “He used to tell this story that, ‘Yeah, I saw this warm light, I was kind of headed toward it (and) said, hey, you know what, I grew up in Kansas. So let me go back the other way.’ And when he went back the other way, all of a sudden he heard the beeping and everything, and he came back. He just always used to say, ‘No I’m not ready for that place yet.’ ”
Earl Woods would last more than nine more years. He held out until last May, long enough to see his son win 10 of his 12 major championships. Woods, of course, won the last two majors of last year and goes for his third consecutive next week at the site of his remarkable first.
Tiger says his father went to that 1997 Masters against doctor’s orders. He wasn’t supposed to travel. As it happened, he assisted significantly in his son’s victory.
The 21-year-old Woods was very much satisfied with his game before arriving at Augusta. He had shot 59 at Isleworth back home the weekend before. But something was wrong when he reached the site.
“I get there and I can’t putt a lick,” he recalled last week. “I had the worst speeds, the worst lines, I’m hitting it well, but I just cannot shake it in from anywhere. Wednesday night I go to Dad and say, ‘Pop, can you take a look at my stroke? It feels terrible.’
“He tells me just a couple of things and tells me, ‘Just go out there and do it.’ I didn’t really putt particularly well on the front, but . . . all of a sudden it happened. I made a bomb on 10, chipped in on 12 and you know, went through the back nine.’ ”
Golf doesn’t have many more interesting days than that. The equivalent of a college junior, Woods shot 40-30 that opening day. Victory, much less the 12-shot variety, was farthest from his mind.
“I was just hoping to make the cut,” he said last week.
Things were a bit different by Saturday night. He followed with 66-65 and led by nine shots after three rounds. That night, he and his father stayed up talking past midnight.
“(Dad) said, ‘Just go to sleep.’ You know, it’s going to be the most important round of your life, but you can handle it. Just go out there and do what you do. Just get in your own little world and go out there and just thrash ’em.”
Woods says that feels like it happened more than a decade ago.
“It seems like forever ago,” he said. “My buddies and I always kid that I live in dog years out here. It’s just hard to believe it’s been 10 years.”
A lot has happened in golf in those 10. The game is different in so many ways. For the pros, PGA Tour purses have risen from $80.55 million in 1997 to a projected $266.85 this year. Credit Woods, arguably the best player ever, for the increase of more than $186 million.
Woods and technology ushered in the Powerball Era. Average Tour driving distance is up about 22 yards, from 267.6 in 1997 to 289.3 last year. Driver shafts are an inch or two longer and driver heads are much bigger, making the old ones look like 3-woods. Some players used persimmon fairway woods in 1997, now everyone uses a titanium driver. Woods used a steel shaft on his driver, now everyone uses graphite. Wound balata balls are out, and double-cover solid balls are in.
You’ll find far more international players on golf’s top rung. Back then there were no World Golf Championships. Back then galleries weren’t as young and diverse as now, either. Credit Woods for that as well.
Augusta National measured 6,925 yards then. Now it’s 7,445, an increase of 520 yards. Woods, of course, had a hand in that, too. He hit short irons to all par 4s then and most par 5s. He averaged 323 yards off the tee that week.
The night Woods won, third-place Tommy Tolles doubled Jack Nicklaus’ estimate and said Woods could win the Masters the next 20 years. He wasn’t quite right with that, for Woods seeks No. 5 next week. But Tolles was spot on with this:
“If he’s on top of his game, we’ll all be playing for silver medals.”
That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.