The month of April in world golf means one thing to golf fans across the globe – The Masters championship at Augusta, Georgia, USA. The Masters is the first major championship of the year and the golfing world looks forward to crowning its first “grand – slam” champion. In our era the question is not “Who will win ?” but “Will Tiger Woods win again ?”
In the past decade, Augusta has been dominated by Woods like it never has by anyone else. It was at Augusta, back in 1997 that a 21 year old Woods made the world actually sit up and take notice that he was redefining the game as we knew it. It was at Augusta 1997 that Tiger launched a billion dollar golf business empire. It was at Augusta that a golfer became a teenage pop icon.
Woods’s 12-shot victory at the 1997 Masters was a moment that changed the game. It broke down barriers, shifted perceptions and ushered in a new era in sports. It offered the first glimpse of the dominance that was to come. It created an icon the likes of which golf had never seen.
Woods had already been an outstanding amateur golfer winning six National titles consecutively including three US Amateur Championships. He was college player of the year. However, there have been other young superstars who have failed to make the transition from amateur to pro ranks. No one was prepared for Tiger to make such an impact. Most experts said that the game would never be dominated again simply because there were too many good players each week and any one of the 100 US Tour players could win in any week.
Woods started the 97 Masters with a remarkable first day score of 70 which included 9 hole scores of 40-30. He then shot 66 on Friday, 65 on Saturday and 69 on Sunday, breaking scoring records along the way.
As a result of Woods dominance of Augusta and thereafter, the golf world would soon undergo massive changes in every area. Woods’s popularity led to a s urge in interest in the sport. More young people took up the game than ever before , including minorities who had long been disinterested. Junior programs started , such as The First Tee, which till date have introduced an estimated 500,000 kids from backgrounds which would otherwise never have been exposed to golf. Television coverage and viewership of golf increased, notably whenever Woods was playing in a tournament and the US PGA Tour’s new TV contracts enabled prize money to increase five fold in the next 10 years !
Prize money further increased, as companies lined up to sponsor tournaments and advertisers looked again at buying time on golf broadcasts. Suddenly, sports editors of major newspapers and also popular celebrity magazines were sending two and three reporters at a time to follow Woods’s tournaments.
As Woods became a fitness buff , other pros and budding stars followed. His body changed from skinny kid to that of a championship boxer . Pro golfers, all of a sudden became recognized as serious athletes.
Woods’s win at the Masters also changed the way tournament courses prepared themselves. The organizers at venues of the PGA Tour courses began looking at ways to lengthen and toughen up their course s . New teeing grounds which made the holes play 30 – 70 yards longer were added. Golf course architects, designers and developers altered their plans. Golf Equipment companies rushed to compete for new “Tiger – Like” power designs for the average player. Trees were added. Rough on either side of fairways was grown longer. Nike launched into golf equipment and apparel on the back of a 10 year 100 million dollar contract with Woods. Other golf courses tried to “Tiger-proof” their layouts so Woods wouldn’t make a mockery of their ‘pre Tiger era’ layouts.
The tougher the y made the courses , the better Woods seemed to play. Whether the courses were long or short, firm or soft, tree-lined or bare, Woods found a way to destroy them and his opponents . He would win the Masters again in 2001, 2002 and 2005. He would win the 2000 United States Open at Pebble Beach by 15 shots and the 2000 British Open at St. Andrews by eight.
In the 11 years since that first Masters victory, Woods has continued to evolve . He’s overhauled his swing twice. He’s gotten married and become a father. He’s won 12 more majors, second only to Jack Nicklaus, and he’s taken his game and his sport to new heights.
But no matter where his game goes, and no matter how many major titles he collects , it was that April week at Augusta in 1997 as the moment when it all really began for Woods. It was a moment that changed the game, a moment that changed the sport forever.