21 years later, how Tiger's win changed the face of golf

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21 years later, how Tiger's win changed the face of golf

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in April 1997, I stood next to Lee Elder beneath the giant oak behind the clubhouse at Augusta National Golf Club as he tried to put into perspective what he was witnessing -- a perspective no one else in the world could offer.

The first black man to play in the Masters Tournament, having broken the color barrier 22 years earlier, was there to see the tournament's first black champion crowned. To see a sight Elder had once thought he wouldn't live to witness.

On the course, 21-year-old Tiger Woods was in the process of dismantling the fabled layout, and his competition. His final 18-under par 270 would break the 72-hole tournament record, untouched until Jordan Spieth matched it in 2015, and his 12-shot margin of victory remains the standard.

But those were just numbers. The impact on society of Woods' triumph -- Elder told a group of reporters that had "more potential than Jackie Robinson" -- and his eventual dominance of golf would put mere numbers to shame.

Elder, then 62, talked to us at length about what that Sunday meant to African-Americans in general, and to him in particular.

"All blacks have hoped and prayed for a day like this to come," he said with emotion. "I felt like it would, but I didn't think it'd be this soon with this young man. To see someone like him win here in 1997 ..."

Elder also called it "one happy and glorious day." Who were we to disagree?

That was 20 years ago this week. Two decades during which Woods, now 41, climbed atop the golf world, so far ahead of challengers as to render the idea of rivals silly. Over the next dozen years, he piled up major championships second only to Jack Nicklaus' 18. At 32 when he won his 14th major, it seemed inevitable he would blow past the Golden Bear without pausing.

Then in 2009, it all went to hell.

Woods' story is legend now: the four consecutive majors (aka the "Tiger Slam") in 2000-01, the lopsided U.S. Open win at Pebble Beach, three more Masters' titles and the astonishing victory at Torrey Pines in 2008 while playing on a broken leg. Then, the fall: losing the 2009 PGA Championship to unknown Y.E. Yang, the first time Woods failed to close out a 54-hole lead at a major, followed that Thanksgiving by revelations of his marital scandal.

Since 2013, when he won five times in a "comeback" that wasn't, Woods has become a shell of his glory days, plummeting in the world rankings as injuries, surgeries and swing changes piled up. Today, what once seemed destined to be the greatest career ever in golf now appears done, or all but so. In 1997, though ...

That week in April, we marveled at what we saw. And at what might come after.

Record-setting score

This month, Woods and Canadian co-writer Lorne Rubenstein released "The 1997 Masters: My Story," a 200-page memoir in Woods' words about that landmark week. Reviews are mixed: while most laud the player's candor in parts of the story, others lament Woods' career-long reserve at revealing most of his innermost thoughts.

We had gotten a whiff of that reticence even before the '97 Masters. The previous fall, Woods arrived at the Buick Challenge at Callaway Gardens, near Columbus, Ga., for what local promoters figured would be a windfall for the second-tier tournament -- and a prime opportunity for golf writers like me to get a look at the rising star. Instead, discovering he had already won enough money to avoid the PGA Tour's Q-school, Woods pulled out -- even deserting a dinner to honor his amateur career -- leaving officials and fans empty-handed and disappointed.

By April, though, that was forgotten. Woods, already with four PGA Tour titles, would be playing his first Masters as a professional, and the anticipation was palpable. Escorted by Pinkerton guards everywhere he went, the rookie arrived Thursday at the first tee -- and then looked like, well, a rookie.

For nine holes, Woods -- as I wrote then -- "couldn't find Augusta's wide, luxurious fairways with a map and a guide. ... His first shot landed 10 feet inside the tree line; his second shot finished in a greenside bunker. ... He finally hit a fairway off the tee -- on the fifth hole."

"I was pretty hot over the way I was playing," Woods said after that round. With a 4-over par 40 front nine, he seemed doomed to an early exit. And then ... everything changed.

Woods said as he stood on the 10th tee, he decided his swing was too long, the club too far back and inside. "(But) the tee shot on 10, I felt I was in a good position (and) I tried to carry that feeling all the way around (the back nine)."

Woods then reeled off birdies at Nos. 10, 12 (where he pitched in from behind the green) and 13. At the par-5 15th, he drove a massive 352 yards and hit his second shot to four feet for eagle. He birdied 16, then missed a birdie putt at the 18th, "settling" for a 30 back nine and 2-under 70 total.

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"My birdie putt to shoot 29 slid just past the right edge," Woods wrote in his book. "But (a) 30 was just fine." Soon, it was more than that.

On Friday, he took the lead with a 6-under 66, three shots ahead of Colin Montgomerie, and on Saturday, his blistering 65 (for a nine-shot lead) turned drama into a coronation on Sunday. Montgomerie, who pre-round had said "the pressure will be mounting on Mr. Woods," shot 74 and ran up a verbal white flag, for himself and the rest of the field, in Saturday's news conference.

"There is no chance humanly possible that Tiger is just going to lose this tournament," he said. He was correct, of course.

Thus, Sunday at the 61st Masters -- when Woods' closing 69 extended the lead to a dozen over runner-up Tom Kite -- challenged we media types to place his triumph in historical context. That day, we again had Lee Elder.

Referencing himself and other black golfers who'd never gotten a chance to play in, let alone win, a Masters, Elder said, "We're all so proud of him, the things he's accomplished, his composure, the way he carries himself. I think he'll change (Augusta National), because this (victory) will open doors for more blacks to be members."

Times had changed greatly, Elder said, in the two decades since his own debut. "I don't think (Woods) would've been accepted" in 1975, he said. "That year, I don't think the world was ready to accept a black champion with open arms. Today, times have changed. I know he'll be accepted by all parts of our society."

Elder said in his day, Woods "would've needed security guards to reach the first tee." He was reminded by writers that Woods, in fact, needed guards in 1997 -- to part the massive, cheering crowds. "Yes," he said, smiling, "but in a different way."

'The Age of Tigers'

In the aftermath of his runaway victory, Woods seemed as much instigator of social change as golf champion. On Sunday, Fuzzy Zoeller was asked to comment about Woods' victory, and the 1979 winner -- having consumed, it was surmised, a few post-golf cocktails -- made jokes that fell flat, especially references to a potential 1998 Champions Dinner menu of fried chicken, watermelon and "whatever else they eat."

Woods didn't lash out at Zoeller, but he let the Tour's resident jokester simmer in his own words for weeks before announcing Zoeller had apologized and Woods had accepted that. For the most part, the victory was seen as a breakthrough -- not just for a supremely talented young player, but for the advancement of race relations and diversity on the largely-white PGA Tour.

Golf-wise, Nicklaus declared the Age of Tiger had arrived. "The scoreboard tells more than I can," the six-time Masters' winner said that week. "It's pretty obvious he's dominating what he's doing."

Tom Watson, a two-time Masters champion, echoed the Golden Bear. "He's a boy amongst men ... and he's showing the men how to play." Of Woods' fierce intensity on the course, Watson said, "I've seen that look before, with Nicklaus and (1976 winner Raymond) Floyd, and it feels like that. It looks like we're all playing for second place."

Woods, whose father Earl had already predicted his son would "change the world," saw his victory at Augusta in terms beyond competition. "I think (becoming the first minority major winner) will open a lot of doors," Earl Woods said. "It's an opportunity to draw a lot of people into golf who never thought about playing.

"It means doing something no one else has accomplished," he added. "That means a lot to me."

Indeed, Woods over the next dozen years would pile up 79 tournament victories -- more than anyone in history other than Sam Snead (82) -- and the aforementioned 14 majors, with the promise of more to come ... before 2009 happened. So how did all that change professional golf, and the world?

Golf would change hugely. More fans, especially nontraditional, minority and younger fans, began turning out for PGA Tour events. With those throngs came bigger sponsorships and more money. Woods' champions' paycheck in 1997 was $486,000; eight years later, when he won his latest green jacket, the winner's share was $1.26 million. Purses skyrocketed across the PGA Tour, fueled by burgeoning TV contracts as networks scrambled to get a piece of the Tiger Woods magic.

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Twenty years after that April, money has grown even more, and while Woods has been the greatest recipient -- through 2014, his on-course career earnings were nearly $110 million, a fraction of his off-course income, which makes him perhaps the first billion-dollar athlete -- new generations of players have cashed in handsomely, too.

Yet while Woods' impact on golf crowds was and remains huge (tournaments in which he did not play drew about half those where he did), and while -- as Elder predicted -- Augusta National added black members and eventually women (South Carolina's Darla Moore and former U.S. secretary of state Condelezza Rice), his personal goal of "growing the game" among minorities has been, at best, a mixed result.

Participation in recreational golf by African-Americans remains minor compared to whites, while the number of black PGA Tour (and Tour and other mini-tour) players can generally be counted on one hand.

Now, as Woods (and the PGA Tour) contemplates a future in which golf's most bankable star talks about spending more time with his two children and has withdrawn from more recent tournaments because of injuries than he's completed, the ultimate result of Tigermania seems at a crossroads. If he decides not to play in the 2017 Masters -- his 21st, after not playing in 2014 and 2016 -- many insiders believe the world may have seen him stalking the Augusta National fairways for the final time.

So what's the bottom line on Tiger Woods' 1997 victory at Augusta National? Perhaps it's less about numbers and more about opening doors, no matter how many (or few) have stepped through.

Woods said it himself on the eve of that Masters win. "I think (black golf pioneers Elder, Charlie Sifford and others) will go through several emotions," he said that Saturday. "I'm sure they wish it could've been them. But I love those guys to death, and they love me.

"And I know they're proud of what I've done."

Twenty-one years later, that hasn't changed. 

This article is written by Bob Gillespie from The State and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to