AUGUSTA, Ga. — Editor’s note: This column originally published in The Charlotte Observer on April 14, 1997.
At every hole throughout the afternoon there had been a standing ovation for him. But the greatest, the most heartfelt, came at the last for Tiger Woods Sunday, and it will echo forever.
Up the hill toward the Augusta National clubhouse and a place in golfing history he climbed under an overcast sky, with a chilly breeze moving the pinetops and rippling his red shirt. The electric smile that had been absent so much of this grueling day glowed on his brown face.
At age 21, in his first year as a professional, Tiger Woods had won the Masters and become the first player of African American descent to claim any major golf championship. It was the most significant victory anywhere in golf since Arnold Palmer won the 1958 Masters and embarked on a career that popularized golf outside the country clubs in America.
Lee Elder, the first black golfer to play in the Masters in 1975, and who had flown in to be on hand for this moment, said: “No one will ever turn their head again when a black man walks to the first tee.”
When Woods had knocked in his last putt Sunday on the hardest round he had ever had to play in a lifetime of hard rounds, he embraced his dad, Earl, and showed us that he is not all steel and stare. He cried on his dad’s shoulder.
Under pressure beyond our imagination, the 21-year-old Woods shot 70-66-65-69, a stroke better than anyone had ever done it, and that would include the likes of Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson and Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
He crushed the elite field by 12 shots, the widest margin in a major championship since Young Tom Morris won the British Open by that number in 1870. In his 18 major professional victories, Nicklaus never won by more than nine. In his seven, Palmer never won by more than six.
Sunday was tough, tougher than the 66 he shot on Friday or the 65 on Saturday, because Woods took a nine-shot lead to the first tee and had to fight off the demons that came swarming. Memories of Greg Norman’s collapse last year were there among them. Thoughts of all the years of planning and working for this moment, they were there, too. The hopes of kids who have taken to him and of racial and ethnic minorities, of Elder and Charlie Sifford and all those other old black campaigners who cut a path for him.
He got a little nervous, he said.
His dad had told him, “Son, this will probably be the hardest round you’ll ever have to play. Go out there and be yourself and it’ll be one of the most rewarding.”
And it was.
Especially so, said Woods, because of what it might mean to minorities. And to kids.
“I think now kids will think golf is cool, really, and start playing, ” said the new Masters champion who makes frequent trips to Taco Bell and McDonald’s, pitches an occasional youthful fit, likes video games and sleeps the sleep of the innocent, even on the night before he wins the Masters.
Now that we have seen that Tiger Woods is what we thought he would be and hoped he would be, we turn our eyes to the future. What’s out there for this remarkable talent who fears nothing but failure? The Grand Slam, perhaps? Is it realistic to suggest that he might win all four majors (the Masters, British Open, PGA Championship and U.S. Open) in the same year?
“Whether it’s realistic or not I couldn’t really tell you, ” he said, “but I think it can be done. Phil Mickelson won four tournaments last year. You just have to win the right four.
“You’re competing with the best players in the world under extremely difficult conditions but if you can peak at the right times and have a lot of luck on your side and play well, who knows?”
The other major championship courses will not necessarily suit Woods’ game the way Augusta National does, with its wide fairways and forgiving rough. His huge tee shots allowed him to play a course the others weren’t playing. He was hitting soft shots into the greens with short irons while others were whistling longer irons at surfaces that show no mercy for them.
But is there a course Tiger Woods can’t play? He’s won junior titles in bunches, three U.S. Amateurs and already has four wins in half-a-year as a pro. Today, nothing seems impossible.