Sometimes, what we witness after history was made is more interesting. So when we look back at Tiger Woods winning his first Masters in historic fashion 20 years ago today, it’s just as important to look at what happened after his victory.
Tiger became the first African American to win the Masters at Augusta National, a course that was historically racist and for quite some time only utilized black caddies. And just seven years before his win, Augusta National finally admitted its first black member.
It’s important to note that before his win, Woods was already well known. At two years old in 1978, Tiger putted against comedian Bob Hope on The Mike Douglas Show. At age 5, he appeared in Golf Digest and on ABC’s show That’s Incredible, and later went on to win the Junior World Championships six times, including four consecutive wins from 1988 to 1991.
He followed his junior career with an even more impressive amateur career, becoming the first golfer to win three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles, winning the NCAA Championship while at Stanford, and earning the silver medal as the leading amateur at The Open Championship.
Prior to his showing at the Open, however, and two years before his first major win at Augusta, Tiger made his first cut at a major at the 1995 Masters Tournament.
It is safe to say that no one in the golf world was surprised by his dominance in 1997. What we did not anticipate was just how swift and authoritative his reign over the sport would be. Nor could we predict that in his greatness, many would grow to both love and hate him.
He was arrogant, but charming. He at times seemed unapologetic, but his confidence was alluring. Other professionals wanted to capture his bravado and somehow pocket it for themselves.
“If only I could have just a piece of his intrepidity,” some would say to themselves.
Truth is, what he had could not be taught, as no sports psychologist could ever work with a player enough to give them a mind like Tiger.
His physicality in the sport was not earth-shattering. Yes, he drove the ball well and far, yes he hit a lot of greens, but that is not what made him great. It was his recovery shots, and his grit in the toughest of situations that made him special.
When Tiger walked on the course, he seemed untouchable. In just under his first full year as a professional, he reached No. 1 in the world.
Allen Doyle, a PGA pro who played with Tiger as an amateur, told the New York Times, “He wasn’t the first guy who showed up in this or that sport that was a can’t-miss kid. A lot of those kids missed. What made Tiger different, I think, is the determination that he had that no way was he going to fail. He had something innate in him that made him almost will himself to succeed.”
If Tiger believed he could pull the shot off, then it was safe for you to believe it, too.
Tiger was exciting to watch, not just because he was a person of color dominating in a sea of white, but because he brought an energy to golf that was missing. His trademark fist pump, his laser-focus, and signature red shirt on the final round were Tiger essentials.
But the issue of race would always be a focus on Tiger. The PGA Tour hoped that having a black man dominate would encourage more African Americans to play.
African Americans hoped Tiger would be an advocate for their community.
In fact, he seemed to distance himself from being seen as African-American, famously saying in an Oprah Winfrey interview, "Growing up, I came up with this name: I'm a 'Cablinasian'. I'm just who I am ... whoever you see in front of you.”
There was no way Tiger could please everyone. Had he become entrenched in political and social issues, he likely would have been highly criticized, particularly in the extremely conservative world of golf.
In post-round interviews, he was often dubbed arrogant and cocky when he said things like, “I didn’t have my A game today,” despite shooting in the 60’s.
The media frenzy that followed Tiger as he seemed destined to beat Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles did not give room for him to be human. But even if he said or did the wrong thing, we could not help but root for him because, as sports fans, we love to see records broken.
We like to be part of that history.
So when Tiger’s cheating and extra-marital affairs scandal became public fodder in 2009, those who stood by him felt let down, and those who never liked him used it as ammo against him.
It is safe to say that Tiger would never be the Tiger we once knew: the irreverent and bold player who never backed down from a challenge. His golf game was no longer the center of discussion. Instead, his sex life made headline news, and his marital problems were on full display.
With his personal life being thrown in a blender, his persona on the course was shattered. Suddenly, he was no longer indestructible. The rest of the field was no longer simply playing for second place.
Despite winning fourteen majors and over seventy professional tournaments worldwide, he was no longer infallible.
Tiger’s last major win, before the scandal, was at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. In true Tiger-esque form, he holed a 12-footer on the final hole to get into a playoff, and won the 18-hole playoff the next day.
I remember watching that tournament, and thinking to myself, “We will never see anyone like Tiger in this century again.”
The fact that we’re celebrating a tournament Tiger won twenty years ago is evidence of that.