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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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By day Woods went back to changing the world, one mammoth drive at a time, on a course that Nicklaus called "much harder than the one I played" when he delivered his 271.

What's weird is that this was the only Masters in history that began on the back nine on Thursday and ended on Saturday night. For the first nine holes of the tournament the three-time reigning U.S. Amateur champion looked very amateurish. He kept flinching with his driver, visiting many of Augusta's manicured forests, bogeying 1, 4, 8 and 9 and generally being much more about Woods than about Tigers. His 40 was by two shots the worst starting nine ever for a Masters winner.

But something happened to him as he walked to the 10th tee, something that separates him from other humans. He fixed his swing, right there, in his mind. He is nothing if not a quick study. In the six Augusta rounds he played as an amateur, he never broke par, mostly because he flew more greens than Delta with his irons and charged for birdie with his putter, often making bogey instead. This year, though, he realized he had to keep his approach shots below the hole and keep the leash on his putter. "We learned how to hit feeders," Cowan said. Woods figured out how to relax and appreciate the six-inch tap-in. (For the week he had zero three-putts.) And now, at the turn on Thursday, he realized he was bringing the club almost parallel to the ground on his backswing—"way too long for me"—so he shortened his swing right then and there.

He immediately grooved a two-iron down the 10th fairway and birdied the hole from 18 feet. Then he birdied the par-3 12th with a deft chip-in from behind the green and the 13th with two putts. He eagled the 15th with a wedge to four feet. When he finished birdie-par, he had himself a back-nine 30 for a two-under 70—your basic CPR nine. Woods was only three shots behind the first-day leader, John Huston, who moved in front at 18 by holing a five-iron from 180 yards for eagle and then dropped from sight the next day with a double-par beagle 10 on the 13th. Playing in the twosome ahead of Huston, Woods had eagled the same hole after hitting an eight-iron to 20 feet, vaulting into the outright lead, one he would never relinquish.

By Friday night you could feel the sea change coming. Woods's 66 was the finest round of the day, and his lead was three over Colin Montgomerie. Last year's two Goliaths in the Masters drama—Nick Faldo and Greg Norman—had blown the cut, Faldo 20 shots behind Woods and Norman 15. For Norman, even a pretournament session with motivational speaker Tony Robbins didn't help. Next year: Stuart Smalley. I'm good enough, I'm shark enough and, doggone it, people fear me! "I guess I should start hating this bloody place," Norman said as he left, "but I can't."

Saturday was nearly mystical. As the rest of the field slumped, Woods just kept ringing up birdies. He tripled his lead from three to nine with a bogeyless 65. You half expected him to walk across Rae's Creek. Even when Masters officials warned him for slow play on the 14th, he kept his head.

That night there was this loopiness, this giddy sense, even among the players, of needing to laugh in the face of something you never thought you'd see. A 21-year-old in his first major as a pro was about to obliterate every record, and it was almost too big a thought to be thunk. "I might have a chance," said Paul Stankowski, who trailed by 10, "if I make five or six birdies in the first two or three holes." After playing with Woods on Saturday, Montgomerie staggered in looking like a man who had seen a UFO. He plopped his weary meatiness into the interview chair and announced, blankly, "There is no chance. We're all human beings here. There's no chance humanly possible."

What about last year? he was asked, a reference to Norman's blowing a six-shot lead and losing the Masters to Faldo by five. "This is very different. Faldo's not lying second, for a start. And Greg Norman's not Tiger Woods."

Ouch.

Only 47-year-old Tom Kite, who would finish second in the same sense that Germany finished second in World War II, refused to give up. He was a schnauzer with his teeth locked on the tailpipe of a Greyhound bus as it was pulling into beltway traffic. How can you be so optimistic when Woods is leading by nine shots? "Well," said Kite, "we've got it down to single digits, don't we?"

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