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Tiger's '97 Masters win was decisive -- and historic

Tiger emerges from Woods as golfing icon
By Bob Carter
Special to

"Other golfers want to win. Tiger expects to win. And he doesn't accept second because second [stinks]," says Earl Woods, Tiger's father, on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Earl Woods saw the wondrous truth two decades before the world did. His nine-month-old son had watched Dad hit golf balls on a homespun driving range for some time, and one day the baby grabbed a club. Imitating his father's swing, Tiger Woods drove the ball straight into the net.

"It was the most frightening thing I had ever seen," said Earl.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods has had little trouble reading the lines -- he was the youngest golfer (at 24) to complete a career Grand Slam.
The magic has gathered momentum over time, smack into a new century. This golfing hero from California has moved more like a torpedo than a tiger. His magnetism has energized an often crusty, country-club sport like few before him.

"He's come along at exactly the right time," pro Loren Roberts said in 1996.

Take a look at his speed: In his abbreviated debut season of 1996 -- at 20 -- Woods won twice. The next year, he became the first African-American to win a major when he dominated the Masters. In 2000, he became only the second golfer -- Ben Hogan was the first in 1953 -- to win three professional majors in a year. He was the youngest -- at 24 -- to complete a career Grand Slam. And it took him just 21 starts in the majors, fastest ever. That year, he captured 11 titles, nine on Tour, and had record Tour earnings of more than $9 million for his 20 starts.

In 2001, his victory at the Masters, when he shot a 16-under-par 272 to win by two strokes, enabled him to become the first to hold all four pro Grand Slam titles simultaneously. The next year, he became only the third player to win consecutive Masters championships as his 276 enabled him to win the tournament by three strokes. In 2005, he won the Masters and British Open, giving him 10 majors, more than halfway to Jack Nicklaus' record of 18. And Tiger hadn't turned 30 yet.

His presence rocketed television numbers, the 2000 U.S. Open spinning record overnight ratings for its weekend telecasts even as Woods crushed the competition. He attracted staggering commercial endorsements, played before sellout crowds, graced countless magazine covers.

Woods is a multi-ethnic blend; Earl is equal parts African-American, Chinese, American Indian and white and his mother Kutilda is Thai. He diversified his sport's audience, colorizing galleries and refueling the dreams of minority golfers.

Quite simply, he has provided golf a striking, bigger-than-life figure -- a "Michael Jordan in long pants," said pro Paul Azinger -- an icon whose popularity seemed almost instantaneous.

"You hate to keep blowing his horn," said veteran golfer and commentator Curtis Strange, "but every time you turn around, he's doing something no one else can."

Woods formed that habit early. At three, he broke 50 for nine holes and at five, he was shooting in the 90s over 18. Encouraged by Earl and Kutilda, Woods fully embraced the game and became a junior champion.

"Tiger is the first black intuitive golfer ever raised in the United States," Earl said.

After becoming the first man to win three consecutive U.S. Amateur championships, Woods turned pro in August 1996. By early in the 21st century, he was a legend, his achievements sometimes surpassing those of golf's all-time best.

The tall, lean phenom, interspersing his steely focus with a Hollywood smile, won twice in his first seven starts as a rookie before delivering a startling performance in the 1997 Masters. With his long drives controlling famed Augusta National, he overwhelmed the field. His record 18-under-par 270 enabled him to win by 12 strokes, another mark.

"He's more dominant over the guys he's playing against than I ever was over the ones I played against," said Nicklaus. "He's so long, he reduces the course to nothing."

Eldrick T. Woods was born on Dec. 30, 1975 in Cypress, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb. His father, a contracts administrator for an aircraft company who had risen to lieutenant colonel as a Green Beret in Vietnam, carried a passion for golf.

Tiger caught on quickly. When he was 11 he won 30 junior events without losing and later became the first boy to win three USGA juniors. As a teenager, he played with some of golf's biggest names, including Nicklaus, whose achievements he set as goals.

While his parents allowed him ample practice time, they also enforced strict rules about homework. Bright and analytical, Woods developed into an excellent student.

At Stanford, where he studied business management, he became a first-team All-American as a freshman, tying for fifth in the 1995 NCAA championships, and won the title the next spring.

In the summers of 1994, '95 and '96, he beat older opponents in the U.S. Amateur, proving he had not only the skills but the emotional strength to handle intense, head-to-head competition.

A week after winning his third Amateur -- when he rallied from five holes behind with 16 holes left to beat Steve Scott in sudden death -- and fresh off signing more than $60 million in endorsement deals, he had his much celebrated pro debut in the Milwaukee Open. The nation's top amateur drove his first pro shot 336 yards down the middle and opened with a four-under 67. Three days later, he shot a 73 and finished at seven-under 277, tied for 60th.

Veteran Bruce Lietzke played with Woods on the "73" day and was impressed: "A lot of 20-year-olds would get frustrated, angry. He never lost his temper. If he's going to be the game's next great ambassador, then the game is in good hands."

Buoyed by victories at Las Vegas and Disney World later in the year, Woods finished a remarkable 24th in earnings in his short rookie season. His drawing power proved immense, with the Disney event -- near his Orlando home -- tripling its attendance over the previous year.

His first full season in 1997, highlighted by his Masters triumph, produced four victories and his first earnings title with winnings of $2,066,833. "The bigger the event," Azinger said, "the higher he'll raise the bar."

If there were doubters, Woods gave them some voice the next year when he won just once (the BellSouth Classic) and finished fourth in money earnings. His ability to close out matches waned, leaving some to wonder if the Masters romp was an aberration.

Tiger Woods
Woods has gotten used to hoisting championship trophies -- he owns ten Grand Slam titles.
Hardly. Woods rebounded in 1999 with eight Tour victories and gained his second money title, this time with $6.6 million. He won the PGA Championship when he outdueled Spanish teen Sergio Garcia on a memorable Sunday at Medinah, winning by one stroke with an 11-under 277.

He proved he was more than the game's biggest driver, that he could be flawless with his irons and putter, too. "I've learned more shots," said Tiger. "I'm not that old. I'm not over the hill yet."

His play in 1999 helped the U.S. regain the Ryder Cup two years after his disappointing performance in his Ryder debut.

Tiger merely was warming up for his best golf yet, perhaps the best the world has seen. Woods started 2000 with two straight titles, stretching his winning streak over two seasons to six tournaments. The streak ended when he finished second to Phil Mickelson in the Buick Invitational.

He went 18- and 19-under par in winning the Bay Hill in March and the Memorial in May, then ripped off three majors. He ran from the field in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, finishing at 12-under and winning by 15 shots, the biggest spread ever in a major. "I never had anything like this," Woods said. "Not even in fantasy golf."

Nothing until the following month when he won the British Open at St. Andrews by eight strokes with a record-setting 19-under 269. A month later he became the first in 63 years to win back-to-back PGA titles when he won at Louisville's Valhalla Golf Club. Woods and rookie Bob May tied at a record 18-under in regulation, with Tiger sinking a six-foot birdie putt on 18. Woods then won a three-hole playoff by one shot.

After capturing his second U.S. Open - Woods was the only player to break par on the Bethpage Black course on Long Island in 2002 - he failed to win any of the next 10 majors. But the drought ended at the 2005 Masters, where he beat Chris DiMarco with a birdie on the first playoff hole to claim his fourth green jacket. Three months later, he won again at St. Andrews, and with this British Open victory he became the second player to win all four professional majors twice (Nicklaus was the first).

"We can't say he is the best golfer ever to play," May said, "because it wouldn't be fair to a lot of the other players before him. But he may be, when he is done, the best player."

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