AUGUSTA, Ga. – Five wins 22 years apart, one similarity: A red shirt under a green jacket.
Tiger Woods won his first Masters 25 years ago this week, a watershed moment in golf as the first player of Black heritage to win at Augusta National and the manner in which he destroyed the field like no other before him or since then.
Equally remarkable, if not more, was his fifth green jacket in 2019 after Woods returned from four surgeries on a lower back — the last one to fuse his spine — in such bad shape that he feared he might never be able to play again.
In between was his most historic Masters victory — the Tiger Slam — when Woods made it a clean sweep of the four professional majors in a span of 294 days. The feat remains his alone.
The most popular shot in televised history at the Masters? That would be his chip on the 16th hole in 2005 that scooted up the ridge, down the slope and paused on the edge of the cup for a full second before tumbling in for birdie.
And when Augusta National super-sized the course in 2002 — nine of the 18 holes were lengthened in the biggest overhaul in club history — Woods became only the third player to win back-to-back.
So which win was the most significant?
The question was posed to 25 people — mostly media, some players and a few caddies — and the result was resounding.
1997 (15 votes)
“He scared a lot of people away. Definitely, the first one,” three-time major champion Padraig Harrington said. “Anyone who played that week must have felt, ‘Oh my god. How can I beat this?'”
It's sure to get plenty of attention this week as the 25-year anniversary of a Masters where Woods made his professional debut by breaking 20 records, including the margin (12 shots) and score (270) and his age (21).
The victory came two days before the 50-year anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, adding to the significance. The late Lee Elder, who became the first Black golfer to play in the Masters in 1975 — the year Woods was born — was among those watching it unfold.
And yet it drew as many comparisons with Jack Nicklaus as Jackie Robinson.
“Tiger’s win at the 1997 Masters was a one-two punch unlike anything golf had seen before, or has seen since," said Michael Bamberger, a longtime golf writer and author now at golf.com. “It was breathtaking as an athletic statement and as a social one.”
Most of the panelists referred to it as a moment that changed the landscape of golf, a moment in time that defined a new era. There haven't been many of those.
Gary Van Sickle, a longtime golf writer for Sports Illustrated now with the online site “Morning Read,” compared the '97 Masters with Secretariat winning at Belmont for the Triple Crown.
“The most significant event in American golf since Francis Ouimet won the U.S. Open," he said.
2019 (6 votes)
No stranger to surgeries, mostly on his left knee, the back was a bigger problem. Woods could barely make it up the stairs to the Masters Club dinner on Tuesday night in 2017, and there were second-hand conversations that he was done. The pain was too great.
And then he had fusion surgery. By the end of 2017, he looked better in the Bahamas. He challenged at Carnoustie in 2018, and the comeback was seemingly and remarkably complete when he won the Tour Championship. All that was missing was a major.
Max Homa said the “younger me” might have picked 1997 for the way it changed golf.
“But ‘19 is the most amazing thing to me, as an adult who plays this game, understanding how hard it is whether you’re healthy or not,” he said. “That was the closest to emotional I ever got watching a golf tournament.”
Emotion was a big part of it. The players, some of them Masters champions in their green jackets, waited for him outside scoring. Throaty chants of “Tiger! Tiger!” resonated across the course, maybe all of Augusta.
“It was a phenomenon that transcended sports and attracted the attention of people from all quarters who were riveted by the themes of revival, resurrection and redemption,” said Bill Pennington of the New York Times.
Joel Beall of Golf Digest saw it through a wider lens. Woods became a rock star in 1997 with a win that transcended sport. Over the next two decades of giving fans dominance on the course and disappointment off it, Woods has become “so human it hurt.”
“His 2019 win meant the most because it was a win that was shared.”
2001 (4 votes)
As much as his '97 win reshaped golf, no stretch of golf was more dominant that when Woods won the U.S. Open and British Open in 2000 by a combined 23 shots. He made what he considers the most clutch putt of his career on the 18th hole at Valhalla to force a playoff and win the PGA Championship. And then came seven months of anticipation until the Masters.
No one had ever held all four majors at the same time. No one ever had a chance.
All it took was a battle down the back nine with Phil Mickelson and David Duval, two of his biggest threats, to win what became known as the Tiger Slam.
“To think that he had all that pressure on him to win — while knowing that anything but a victory was, in the scheme of things, a failure — and watching him finish it off still boggles he mind more than 20 years later,” said Dave Shedloski of Golf Digest.
While 1997 was historic and 2019 was inspiring, 2001 was all about performance. Golf has never seen anything like it, then or now.
Jim “Bones” Mackay saw it up close. He caddied for Mickelson, in the final group that day.
“As amazing a player as he is, to come to grips with that mentally had to take a tremendous amount of intestinal fortitude for what he was potentially about to do and will never happen again,” Mackay said. “He had gotten to a mental standpoint no one had been to before.”
The other two Masters would be memorable to just about anyone else. They received no votes.
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