Now, the news comes via Twitter, Tiger Woods announcing he will miss playing in his third Masters in four years. Back problems. Like the kind that never really seem to go away.
It’s for the best. Years ago, the Masters leaders made it clear they didn’t want doddering old former champions to play just because they could. They only gum up the works. And that’s Tiger Woods right now: a great champion unable to play his game at a level that invokes anything but regret.
He’ll stop by the Champions Dinner and have a few laughs. But, otherwise, all that fans will know of him this next week will be through reminiscence. Because this is a big anniversary.
There was no Twitter 20 years ago, but the word was out. In 1997, when Woods had both his hair and his game, he arrived at his first major as a professional amid trumpeting expectation and practically symphonic hype.
He had won three of his first 14 professional starts entering that Masters – with one second and two thirds – and at 21 was ranked No. 13 in the world.
And he promptly shot a 4-over 40 on the Augusta National front nine. He putted off the green on No. 1.
Golf history twiddled its thumbs and awaited his final 63 holes.
Twenty years, really? Twenty years since Woods overcame that stumbling start and went on to announce his presence with authority with a record-shattering, society-rattling 12-stroke victory. Forever, the first of his 14 major championships would rank as the most significant of them all.
When taking a moment to note this nice, round anniversary, one can’t help but be gobsmacked by how quickly two decades can slide on by. And at how far Woods has fallen from that great height – too quickly, too soon in golf years.
At 21, he was being measured for every lifetime kind of record, standing on the shoulders of giants named Arnie and Jack.
At 41, he has been lapped by the very generation of fearless, athletic, long-hitting players who grew up believing golf was cool, thanks to him. His back and reputation in disrepair, Woods currently is the world’s 757th-ranked player – only until the next devaluation is issued.
Thinking back on that spring week in Augusta is an exercise in athletic anthropology.
At the time, Woods’ breakthrough Masters victory transcended a mere four days of golf. A golfer of color winning any major championship would be the stuff of large headlines – but more so the Masters given its at times defiant clinging to membership rolls so male and pale.
It remains the one Masters in which much of the work around the old clubhouse stopped, as laborers gathered on the porches and beneath the giant oak to watch as Woods began and finished his final round. Lee Elder, the first black man to play in the event the year of Tiger’s birth, was on the property to pay tribute to a golfing milestone.
As Woods wrote in his recent book recounting that week: “Later I learned that Augusta staff members, many of them African-Americans, came out to the oak tree on the lawn near the first tee to watch me start. Other staff members were also there. It was time for me to do something at the Masters that had never been done. The thought crossed my mind as I approached the first tee, and then it slipped away. I had fallen into my bubble of concentration.”
His actual performance was as singularly stunning. The golf itself was phenomenal. Woods overpowered the place and the field, to such an extent that Augusta National would embark upon a “Tiger-Proofing” campaign.
It is one thing to hold the masses outside the ropes in awe. And quite another to spellbind those for whom golf is an occupation.
“I shot my normal 74 the third round, which to be honest off the back tees, I thought was quite good,” said the man paired with Woods in the third round that year, Colin Montgomerie. “And his was the easiest 65 I’ve ever seen shot. It opened my eyes and opened the world’s eyes to this golfer we hadn’t seen the likes of before.
“I out-drove him on the first. That’s the last I saw of him all day from then on,” said Montgomerie, who classified much of Woods’ work off the tee as “frightening.”
“You put that (power) on top of his phenomenal short game – he just putted so beautifully – it was a clinic for all of us,” said Nick Price who finished T24 that year, 21 strokes back of Woods. “We had heard it had it in him, but he hadn’t shown us on the Tour because it was only his second year. We were amazed. We knew this was a whole new ballgame now.”
“Pretty cool to see what happened to him then – not so cool what has happened since – but obviously he showed the world what he was capable of at that time,” Steve Stricker, who missed the cut in ’97, said. “It was just a glimpse at what was to come.”
Twenty years later, we might spare a moment before the present whisks us further downstream to recall the sense of wonder when Tiger Woods mattered.