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Strokes of Genius
Rick Reilly
April 21, 1997
Overpowering a storied course and a stellar field, Tiger Woods heralded a new era in golf with an awesome 12-shot victory in the Masters
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April 21, 1997

Strokes Of Genius

Overpowering a storied course and a stellar field, Tiger Woods heralded a new era in golf with an awesome 12-shot victory in the Masters

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Short and pudgy, he pushed through the crowd, elbowing and worming his way, not stopping for any of the cries of "heyyy, watchit!" as he went. At last he popped through to the front and craned his neck down the line, wide-eyed, hoping to see what he had come for. As Tiger Woods strode past, Jack Nicholson slapped him on the back and grinned, same as everybody else.

It didn't matter who you were; if you were there the week everything changed in golf, you just had to reach out and touch a piece of history. Almost 50 years to the day after Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball's color barrier, at Augusta National, a club that no black man was allowed to join until six years ago, at the tournament whose founder, Clifford Roberts, once said, "As long as I'm alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black," a 21-year-old black man delivered the greatest performance ever seen in a golf major.

Someday Eldrick (Tiger) Woods, a mixed-race kid with a middle-class background who grew up on a municipal course in the sprawl of Los Angeles, may be hailed as the greatest golfer who ever lived, but it is likely that his finest day will always be the overcast Sunday in Augusta when he humiliated the world's best golfers, shot 18-under-par 70-66-65-69-270 (the lowest score in tournament history) and won the Masters by a preposterous 12 shots. It was the soundest whipping in a major this century and second only to Old Tom Morris's 13-shot triumph in the 1862 British Open.

When Tiger finally slipped into his green champion's jacket, his 64-year-old father, Earl, drank in a long look and said, "Green and black go well together, don't they?"

So golf is trying to get used to the fact that the man who will rule the game for the next 20 years shaves twice a week and has been drinking legally for almost three months now. "He's more dominant over the guys he's playing against than I ever was over the ones I played against," marveled no less an authority than Jack Nicklaus, whose 17-under Masters record of 271 had held up for 32 years. "He's so long, he reduces the course to nothing. Absolutely nothing."

It was something to see the way a 6'2", 155-pounder with a 30-inch waist crumbled one of golf's masterpieces into bite-sized pieces. The longest club he hit into a par-4 all week was a seven-iron. On each of the first two days he hit a wedge into the 500-yard par-5 15th hole—for his second shot. Honey, he shrunk the course. Last Saturday his seven birdies were set up by his nine-iron, pitching wedge, sand wedge, putter, nine-iron, putter and sand wedge. Meanwhile, the rest of the field was trying to catch him with five-irons and three-woods and rosary beads. When Nicklaus said last year that Woods would win 10 green jackets, everybody figured he was way off. We just never thought his number was low.

Said Jesper Parnevik, who finished 19 shots back, "Unless they build Tiger tees about 50 yards back, he's going to win the next 20 of these." (Memo to former Masters winners: Get ready for a whole lot of Tuesday-night champions' dinners you can supersize.)

Woods's performance was the most outstanding in Augusta National history, and that figured, because he stood out all week. He stood out because of the color of his skin against the mostly white crowds. He stood out because of his youth in a field that averaged 38 years. He stood out because of the flabbergasting length of his drives—323 yards on average, 25 yards longer than the next player on the chart. He stood out for the steeliness in his eyes and for the unshakable purpose in his step. "He may be 21," said Mike (Fluff) Cowan, his woolly caddie, "but he ain't no 21 inside those ropes." Said Paul Azinger, who played with Woods last Friday and got poleaxed by seven shots, "I just got outconcentrated today. He never had a mental lapse."

It was a week like nobody had ever seen at Augusta National. Never before had scalpers' prices for a weekly badge been so high. Some were asking $10,000. Even after it was all done, a seemingly useless badge was fetching up to $50 outside the club's gates. Never before had one player attracted such a large following. Folks might have come out with the intention of watching another golfer, but each day the course seemed to tilt toward wherever Woods was playing. Everybody else was Omar Uresti. Never before had so many people stayed at the course so long, filling the stands behind the practice range, 1,500 strong, to watch a lone player hit thrilling wedge shots under the darkening Georgia sky. It was the highest-rated golf telecast in history, yet guys all over the country had to tell their wives that the reason they couldn't help plant the rhododendrons was that they needed to find out whether the champion would win by 11 or 12.

Away from the golf course, Woods didn't look much like a god. He ate burgers and fries, played Ping-Pong and P-I-G with his buddies, screamed at video games and drove his parents to the far end of their rented house. Michael Jordan called, and Nike czar Phil Knight came by, and the FedExes and telegrams from across the world piled up on the coffee table, but none of it seemed to matter much. What did matter was the Mortal Kombat video game and the fact that he was Motaro and his Stanford buddy Jerry Chang was Kintaro and he had just ripped Kintaro's mutant head off and now there was green slime spewing out and Tiger could roar in his best creature voice, "Mmmmmwaaaaannnnnggh!"

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