Already, 1997 has a different feel. The low expectations and
general malaise that characterized the Tour's old order have
been replaced by a sense of urgency that's shared by rookies as
well as longtime campaigners. The engine driving this change is
Tiger Woods, who has redefined what it takes to excel. In the
seven months Woods has been a professional, the sight and sound
of his shots on the practice tee and the frequency of his name
on the leader board have motivated many players to flatten their
bellies, tighten their swings and intensify their powers of
In such an environment, major championships--golf's gold
standard--take on even more importance, and the forces that will
be unleashed at next week's 61st Masters promise something
momentous. As the first major since Woods turned pro, Augusta
more than ever becomes a place to establish turf, to send a
message, to make history. With a week to go, the game's best are
burning to meet the challenge.
Strangely, a few thermostats either are running too hot or are
set on energy saving, because last year's top three finishers at
the Masters--Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and Phil Mickelson--were
off the boil at the Players Championship, won easily by Steve
Elkington. All three players are doing everything in their power
to peak next week, but Faldo struggled with his putter and
finished 24th; Norman showed the rust from playing only two
times this year and came in 53rd; while Mickelson, who won two
weeks ago at Bay Hill, was hit by allergies and missed the cut
Meanwhile, an astonishingly sharp Jose Maria Olazabal, a winner
in Europe two weeks ago in only his third tournament back after
an 18-month absence caused by a debilitating foot ailment, took
the week off. If the 31-year-old Spaniard, who won the '94
Masters, can win it again next week, he would complete the
greatest comeback the game has seen since Ben Hogan won the 1950
U.S. Open 16 months after suffering near-fatal injuries in a car
"It's coming," said a terse Norman, who along with Olazabal will
play in this week's Freeport-McDermott Classic in New Orleans.
"I know where I have to go." It would be an amazing journey.
Norman is purposefully gearing up for a run at a victory that
would transform him from the most tragic player of his time to
the most heroic. The only golfer who could make a bigger
statement would be Woods.
For all he has accomplished in the last seven months, from
winning a record third straight U.S. Amateur to three victories
in his first nine official tournaments on the Tour, nothing
Woods has done would compare to winning a green jacket. His
African-American heritage would make a victory in the
tournament, in which no black was invited to play until 1975 and
where every caddie was black until '83, a transcendent
accomplishment. From a purely golf perspective, Woods would
graduate from being the game's most talented player to its best,
until further notice. And by winning a Grand Slam event at a
younger age than Jack Nicklaus, Woods would be off to a flying
start in his race against the record of the golfer with whom he
is unavoidably compared.
And while Woods left the Players Championship--he finished
31st--in the midst of his first minislump as a pro, having
missed the top five in four of his last five Tour events, his
unique abilities make him our favorite in the Masters.
There are plenty of reasons. First, his record of winning three
straight U.S. Junior Amateur titles followed by the three
Amateurs proves that Woods knows how to peak for majors. "This
week Tiger will go into his major mode," says his father, Earl,
whose recuperation from quadruple bypass surgery last month has
progressed to the point that he plans to travel to Augusta.
"That means he'll go to his house in Orlando, give himself a lot
of solitude, do a lot of thinking and then work hard on what he
decides he needs. When he calls me, we'll talk. And when he gets
to Augusta on Monday, he will be ready and focused on winning."
It's an approach that belies Woods's youth. "The week of a
major, you have to eat, drink, think, dream--just
everything--golf," he says. "That's what Faldo does. I'm sure
that's what Nicklaus did. Obviously, I lack some experience. But
being young and having a lot of energy and being pysched to play
can also work to my advantage. I can get into that totally
obsessed state maybe more easily than an older player, who has
done it for years and has more going on in his life. The danger
for me is overdoing it, trying too hard and losing patience. But
I know how to focus. I've done it before."
Woods also has the ability to rise to the moment. His 35-foot
birdie putt to win the 35th hole of last year's Amateur or his
near-perfect six-iron shot in sudden death to win the Mercedes
Championships are two examples. Even when he doesn't win, Woods
has often left us breathless. How about his dramatic 267-yard
three-wood second shot to the 18th at Pebble Beach in February
when he needed an eagle? Or his hole in one on the raucous 16th
hole at Phoenix that had the sky raining beer cups. Or Woods's
personal favorite, his first shot as a professional, a 336-yard
bomb down the middle of the fairway last fall in Milwaukee. "I'm
like my dad in that we both get icy under pressure," he says. "I
don't want to sound cocky, but that's what I love the most,
doing it when it means the most."
Augusta is made for Woods. His combination of length, high,
soft-landing iron shots and delicate touch around the greens are
the classic building blocks for Masters victories. More than any
other course, Augusta National rewards "talent shots," the kind
only a minority of the players blessed with power and excellent
technique can pull off, and Woods has more talent than anyone
else. After finishing his first Masters in 1995, the then
19-year-old sat in the Crow's Nest and said, "This place is
perfect for me." And when Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer
predicted, after playing a practice round with Woods last year,
that he would win more than the 10 green jackets they have
accumulated, Woods was flattered but unfazed. "It's a great
compliment," he said. "Obviously, I want to do that anyway."
Woods's caddie, Mike (Fluff) Cowan, has been around long enough
to know the danger of predictions, but even he can't resist a
qualified one. "Expectations are never good for a golfer," says
Cowan, "but if Tiger can play well--not necessarily super--he's
going to take that place apart." In other words, the scoring
record of 271, shared by Nicklaus and Ray Floyd, might be in
That's particularly true if Woods can employ the lessons he has
learned at Augusta. In practice rounds, he has benefited from
the advice of former champions such as Fred Couples, Floyd,
Nicklaus and Palmer. Woods frequently watches tapes of old
Masters, often using the library at the Golf Channel, which is
near his home in Orlando, to observe the strategy of past
winners, particularly Nicklaus. "Basically, what Jack did was
play to the safe side on the par-3s and par-4s, make a bunch of
tap-in pars, then kill the par-5s," Woods says. "That's the way
I want to play. It's such a deceptive course. It looks wide
open, but it's really got a pretty narrow route if you want to
get a good angle at the pin. That's what Faldo is so good at.
And if you want to get your irons close, you usually have to
land them away from the pins and on these tiny spots. Naturally,
I learned all this the hard way."
Woods has never broken par at Augusta in six official rounds.
Last year, in fact, when he was widely touted as a dark horse,
he shot 75-75 and missed the cut. Two things were his undoing.
First, Woods's academic workload at Stanford didn't allow him to
prepare for the event in the single-minded way he prefers.
Second, Woods was in the midst of making a swing change that was
not quite ready for prime time. Though he averaged an amazing
342 yards off the tee and hit 26 of 28 fairways, erratic iron
play--he consistently missed his target long and to the
left--caused him to hit only 21 of 36 greens in regulation. In
retrospect, he was very close to getting his game together.
Shortly after Augusta, he won the Pac-10 championship at Big
Canyon Country Club in Newport Beach, Calif., on the strength of
a day when he shot 61-65, which he considers the best golf he
has ever played. Two weeks later he won the NCAA championship.
Woods says that if his swing had kicked in two weeks earlier, he
would have contended at the Masters.
Woods's putting style has also been a problem at Augusta. As
befits his youth, he has a habit of underreading putts and then
hitting them hard to negate the break. When he misses, he often
has a long comebacker. On Augusta's ultrafast greens, that style
invites killing three-putts, and avoiding them is another key to
winning. Last year Faldo had only one three-putt, one more than
Ben Crenshaw had in '95 and Olazabal had in '94. Woods is aware
of his tendency to miss comeback putts (he three-putted three
greens during the final round while winning at Las Vegas last
October) and has adjusted his style. After studying the fluid
method of Brad Faxon, Woods has lightened his grip pressure to
have better feel for distance and is playing for more break so
that his putts die at the cup.
But Woods's biggest obstacle, long and short term, is the new
pressures in his life. After turning pro, Woods played off the
momentum, confidence and joy of his Amateur victory. Now
commerce, expectations and scrutiny have crowded in and hurt his
ability to perform.
For the most part Woods has adjusted successfully to the hordes
of autograph seekers that surround him before and after rounds,
the extra security he has needed since receiving death threats
earlier this year, the higher standard of behavior he is held to
as golf's most watched superstar and the sometimes lonely
existence his celebrity forces him to lead. But Woods has also
had to deal with some unforeseen and traumatic situations. The
first was the firing last October of his personal attorney, John
Merchant, a family friend, primarily because of a conflict
between the interests of the Tiger Woods Foundation and the
National Minority Golf Foundation, which was headed by Merchant.
The second came when Woods's 64-year-old father suffered a heart
attack while Tiger was playing in the Tour Championship in
Tulsa. The attack led to the bypass operation. The third blow
was the cover story in the April issue of GQ magazine, in which
Woods is quoted using profanity and telling off-color jokes.
Woods saw the story two weeks ago, before the second round of
the Bay Hill Invitational, where after opening with a 68 he
faded to a tie for ninth.
"That article created a deep hurt," says Earl Woods. "In my
opinion he lost his swing because of it. It disillusioned him
and stayed with him awhile because he realized that he had
misjudged a situation. He thought, How could I have been so
But the elder Woods isn't worried that the cumulative effect of
the changes in his son's life will change his love for golf or
his goal of becoming the game's greatest player. "It's going to
be all right," Earl says. "Tiger hasn't lost his idealism or his
enthusiasm. He's not turning from a positive into a negative
person. That would be a complete rejection of his whole
personality and purpose. Yes, he's got some scar tissue and he's
gotten harder, but he needs to grow. As he says to me, 'Dad, I'm
getting so damn tough.' He realizes better than anyone that this
is his life now and that he has to accept what comes with it. No
way has he lost sight of what he wants to accomplish."
Elkington, who with two victories this season, at the Players
and Doral, is the Tour's hottest player and also a threat in the
Masters, agrees. "As far as talent and potential, Tiger is the
best I've ever seen," says Elkington. "But what's best about him
is that when there is chaos all around him, he can concentrate
If he can do it again next week amid what will surely be the
most chaos he has faced thus far, it will be a Masters for the