Already, 1997 has a different feel. The low expectations and general malaise that characterized the Tour's old order have been replaced by a sense of urgency that's shared by rookies as well as longtime campaigners. The engine driving this change is Tiger Woods, who has redefined what it takes to excel. In the seven months Woods has been a professional, the sight and sound of his shots on the practice tee and the frequency of his name on the leader board have motivated many players to flatten their bellies, tighten their swings and intensify their powers of concentration.
In such an environment, major championships—golf's gold standard—take on even more importance, and the forces that will be unleashed at next week's 61st Masters promise something momentous. As the first major since Woods turned pro, Augusta more than ever becomes a place to establish turf, to send a message, to make history. With a week to go, the game's best are burning to meet the challenge.
Strangely, a few thermostats either are running too hot or are set on energy saving, because last year's top three finishers at the Masters—Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and Phil Mickelson—were off the boil at the Players Championship, won easily by Steve Elkington. All three players are doing everything in their power to peak next week, but Faldo struggled with his putter and finished 24th; Norman showed the rust from playing only two times this year and came in 53rd; while Mickelson, who won two weeks ago at Bay Hill, was hit by allergies and missed the cut by six.
Meanwhile, an astonishingly sharp José María Olazábal, a winner in Europe two weeks ago in only his third tournament back after an 18-month absence caused by a debilitating foot ailment, took the week off. If the 31-year-old Spaniard, who won the '94 Masters, can win it again next week, he would complete the greatest comeback the game has seen since Ben Hogan won the 1950 U.S. Open 16 months after suffering near-fatal injuries in a car wreck.
"It's coming," said a terse Norman, who along with Olazábal will play in this week's Freeport-McDermott Classic in New Orleans. "I know where I have to go." It would be an amazing journey. Norman is purposefully gearing up for a run at a victory that would transform him from the most tragic player of his time to the most heroic. The only golfer who could make a bigger statement would be Woods.
For all he has accomplished in the last seven months, from winning a record third straight U.S. Amateur to three victories in his first nine official tournaments on the Tour, nothing Woods has done would compare to winning a green jacket. His African-American heritage would make a victory in the tournament, in which no black was invited to play until 1975 and where every caddie was black until '83, a transcendent accomplishment. From a purely golf perspective, Woods would graduate from being the game's most talented player to its best, until further notice. And by winning a Grand Slam event at a younger age than Jack Nicklaus, Woods would be off to a flying start in his race against the record of the golfer with whom he is unavoidably compared.
And while Woods left the Players Championship—he finished 31st—in the midst of his first minislump as a pro, having missed the top five in four of his last five Tour events, his unique abilities make him our favorite in the Masters.
There are plenty of reasons. First, his record of winning three straight U.S. Junior Amateur titles followed by the three Amateurs proves that Woods knows how to peak for majors. "This week Tiger will go into his major mode," says his father. Earl, whose recuperation from quadruple bypass surgery last month has progressed to the point that he plans to travel to Augusta. "That means he'll go to his house in Orlando, give himself a lot of solitude, do a lot of thinking and then work hard on what he decides he needs. When he calls me. we'll talk. And when he gets to Augusta on Monday, he will be ready and focused on winning."
It's an approach that belies Woods's youth. "The week of a major, you have to eat, drink, think, dream—just everything—golf," he says. "That's what Faldo does. Fm sure that's what Nicklaus did. Obviously, I lack some experience. But being young and having a lot of energy and being pysched to play can also work to my advantage. I can get into that totally obsessed state maybe more easily than an older player, who has done it for years and has more going on in his life. The danger for me is overdoing it, trying too hard and losing patience. But I know how to focus. I've done it before."
Woods also has the ability to rise to the moment. His 35-foot birdie putt to win the 35th hole of last year's Amateur or his near-perfect six-iron shot in sudden death to win the Mercedes Championships are two examples. Even when he doesn't win, Woods has often left us breathless. How about his dramatic 267-yard three-wood second shot to the 18th at Pebble Beach in February when he needed an eagle? Or his hole in one on the raucous 16th hole at Phoenix that had the sky raining beer cups. Or Woods's personal favorite, his first shot as a professional, a 336-yard bomb down the middle of the fairway last fall in Milwaukee. "Fm like my dad in that we both get icy under pressure," he says. "I don't want to sound cocky, but that's what I love the most, doing it when it means the most."