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Tiger's Augusta breakthrough was mind over matter and made him golf's master

 

By Phil Casey

The walk from the ninth green to the 10th tee at Augusta National takes less than a minute, but the significance of that brief period of time on April 10, 1997 cannot be underestimated.

During those few seconds, Tiger Woods came up with the answer to the problems which had seen his first Masters as a professional threaten to unravel.

And in doing so, the 21-year-old kickstarted an extraordinary period of dominance which would produce a total of 14 major championships, the 'Tiger Slam', 79 PGA Tour titles and a record 683 weeks as world number one.

As reigning US Amateur champion, tradition dictated that Woods was paired with defending Masters champion Nick Faldo for the first round in 1997 and both men took 40 shots to cover the front nine.

Woods had bogeyed the first, fourth, eighth and ninth as a result of wayward tee shots, which came as a massive shock to the system having shot 59 while playing with Mark O'Meara at his home course of Isleworth the previous week.

But as his caddie Fluff Cowan offered words of encouragement while they made that walk from the ninth green to the 10th tee, Woods was busy figuring out what had happened.

"I was far inside my own head, trying to understand what had gone wrong," Woods recalled. "I realised my backswing had gotten too long, but I didn't want to force my swing into a position.

"Instead, I focused on what I wanted my swing to feel like on the back nine. It should feel as it did when I shot that 59 with Marko the week before at Isleworth."

Woods duly birdied the 10th, chipped in for another on the 12th and hit a six iron into the par-five 13th to set up a third. A 350-yard drive on the 15th was followed by a pitching wedge to four feet for an eagle and Woods was suddenly under par.

After making a birdie on the 17th, Woods narrowly missed for another on the last which would have given him a back nine of 29, but happily signed for an opening 70 to lie three shots off the lead held by John Huston.

"The mental training that my dad had put me through proved itself during that short walk from the ninth green to the 10th tee and was completely vindicated by the way I played on the back nine," Woods said.

"He had trained me to be what he sometimes called a 'cold-blooded assassin'."

There were, of course, still three rounds to play but Woods was in no mood to take his foot off the accelerator. A second round of 66 gave him a three-shot halfway lead and set up a third round alongside nearest challenger Colin Montgomerie.

By the end of the that round, 'nearest challenger' was something of a misnomer, Woods shooting 65 to Montgomerie's 74 to hold a nine-shot lead over Costantino Rocca.

"If I needed any extra motivation for my third round, Colin Montgomerie provided it during his media conference the day before... saying that everybody would see what I was made of and that his experience might be a 'key factor'," Woods said.

But if Montgomerie had been wrong on that score, he was spot on when he predicted there was no chance of Woods squandering his lead as Greg Norman had done when six shots clear of Faldo 12 months earlier.

A closing 69 gave Woods a record total of 18 under par, a record winning margin of 12 shots and, at the age of 21, made him the youngest winner in Masters history.

It was a victory which also had wider implications given that Woods was the first African-American to triumph at Augusta National, a club whose co-founder Clifford Roberts once said: "As long as I'm alive, golfers will be white and caddies will be black."

Roberts died 20 years before Woods' seismic victory, the first of four Masters triumphs but the most important for Woods, the game of golf and even the wider world.

"Quite a few of Augusta's staff, mostly black people, had left their posts and gathered outside on the lawn and on the verandah on the second floor," Woods recalled of the presentation ceremony.

"They wanted to thank me and I wanted to make sure they knew how thankful I was for their support.

"I've won the Masters three more times, but their presence while I spoke on the putting green that first time was significant in a way that couldn't be repeated.

"A barrier had been broken," he added.

Belfast Telegraph

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