The day broke warm and bright. Augusta, Georgia, was flooded in brilliant sunshine, and the air was thick with anticipation. Either that or pollen, but on that day no one was focusing on allergies. Instead, all were concentrating on the thin young black man staking out a place at the edge of the practice tee. Towering pines framed the tee and cast impressive shadows, but none so imposing as that created by Tiger Woods. Nick Price was there. So were Nick Faldo, John Daly, and Fuzzy Zoeller, all of them consigned to relative obscurity on this Monday of Masters week. All eyes were on Woods.
He was nineteen and so long on ability that he could get home from here with a driver and a 3-wood, and home was three thousand miles away. Home was where the idea of a black man swinging clubs at Augusta National rather than carrying them was not as farfetched as it might have been to a black child growing up in Augusta and standing outside the gates.
Augusta National and the Masters represented the twin beacons of golf's isolationist roots. An African American had not played in the Masters until 1975, and the club did not even have an African-American member until 1990. GQ magazine, in its April 1995 edition, predicted that Woods would be one of the fifty most influential people in the next ten years, not for his ability to launch tee shots into the stratosphere, but because he was black and could do so. GQ determined that he possessed the wherewithal to drag golf kicking and screaming into the twentieth century just in time for the twenty-first.
More than the symbolic significance, though, Tiger was motivated primarily by the Masters' status as a major championship. As his career would ultimately be measured by his performance in major championships such as this, these were the tournaments toward which he was gearing his gameas Nicklaus had done before him. Moreover, Augusta National features wide fairways and no rough, a lethal combination for a man whose only apparent weakness is a tendency to occasionally steer the ball off line with his driver. Tiger's wonderful short game and his imagination around the greens were important elements to have at Augusta, where approach shots would likely as not catch a slope and run off the green.
When he saw Augusta National for the first time, he felt he had found a perfect fit. His game suited the course: he could drive the ball long, and his tendency to occasionally hit it crooked did not harshly penalize him.
He had been invited to play the course in previous years but had always declined, wanting to wait until he had qualified and earned the opportunity. By winning the U.S. Amateur in August of 1994, he was accorded an invitation to the Masters in 1995, and from the outset he was pining to go. He couldn't suppress his excitement. At home for the Christmas holiday several months before the event, he began studying the family collection of videocassettes on which previous Masters had been recorded. He wanted to get a feel for Augusta National's nuances as best he could from a television set. When he returned to Stanford at the end of the holiday break he took the tapes with him to study over and over.
He also transformed the hardwood floor at Maples Pavilion, Stanford's basketball arena, into a putting green. This was an old ploy; at home he would practice putting on the kitchen linoleum in preparation for a tournament to be played on a golf course with fast greens. His carpeted dorm room would not work as a practice surface for Augusta, which features greens that offer less resistance to a Titleist than an ice rink does to a puck.
As the Amateur champion, according to Masters tradition, Tiger was invited to stay in the Crow's Nest, a suite of rooms above the clubhouse at Augusta National. His father dropped him there on Sunday evening, then as an afterthought asked how he was fixed for cash. Tiger produced a wallet that contained one five-dollar bill. Here he was, dropped into the lap of luxury, a guest of some of the wealthiest and most influential men in the country, and he would not have been able to pay up had he lost three ways on a two-dollar Nassau in a practice round the following day.
His room was just a short walk from the practice tee, the putting green, and the first tee. "All I have to do is walk out the door to use the best practice facility and the best course in the world," he said with a look of amazement on his face. "How can you not play well?"
Throughout his stay, he occasionally got lost in the clubhouse and Crow's Nest maze by aimlessly walking through the building's myriad doors. One such door led into the Past Champions clubhouse, off limits to those without the requisite admission ticket, a green jacketthe symbol of the honorary membership given solely to the winners of the Masters. He tried to linger in the Past Champions clubhouse for awhile, unconcerned that he was trespassing on protocol, his mind probably racing ahead to a day not far off when he might have his own green jacket.
A black in a green jacket is an idea that might take getting used to at Augusta. At least a part of the membership seemed at times uncertain of how to behave in the company of an African American who was not a subordinate. One member encountered golfer Vijay Singh, a Fijian with dark skin, and misidentified him as Woods. In addition, members are enlisted to assist in player interviews, and it was one of Augusta's two black members who was called upon to assist in a Woods interview, as though the members thought that Woods might be more comfortable with one of his own.
But Tiger woke early that first Monday morning of the tournament, overcome by the certainty that, despite Augusta's racial history, he had found the perfect event. The Masters is golf in its purest form. There are no hospitality tents, no intrusive signage, no swimming pools or tennis courts. Tiger was certain this would become a home away from home, one that he anticipated revisiting regularly for the next thirty or forty years.
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All week Tiger put on a display of power seldom seen at Augusta National. "Ain't enough golf course out there for him," Burnt Biscuits said. The course was hard and fast, and unlike John Daly, whose drives fly high and land soft, Tiger hit boring drives that, once they touched down, ran like frightened cats. He averaged 311 yards per drive for the week to lead the field.
His driving prowess notwithstanding, Tiger came to understand why Augusta National is called a second-shot course. Woods's length off the tee left him with countless short-iron shots to the greens, an advantage he was unable to utilize. It exposed a flaw in his repertoire: an inability to control the distance on his short irons. Using them the way he does his other clubs, with little in reserve, he kept flying the greens.
"Driving here is not the hard part," Woods said. "It's pretty much the easy part. It's a second-shot golf course, as everyone says. The way the greens are right now, it's very difficult to hold shots. The first hop the ball takes is very big and it's going to take a little time getting adjusted to that."
As Tiger left the course after his round of 77 on Saturday, he was dejected. He encountered Earl by the clubhouse veranda and sought his advice on how to correct this flaw. They engaged in a spirited, and somewhat profane, public debate. At one point Earl suggested that Tiger aim for the front of the greens to compensate. Eventually they decided that Tiger should replace his Mizuno irons, 6 through pitching wedge, with the Cobra irons that belonged to his teacher, Butch Harmon.
One of Harmon's traits is that he does not mince words. He has never shied from dispensing an earful to a client, even Greg Norman. For the truth, you go to Harmon. And Woods sought the truth that afternoon on the practice tee. He wanted to know how his game compared with those of the best players in the world.
"You're almost there now," Harmon said, high praise indeed.
"How long do you think it'll take?" Woods asked.
"With your work ethic, less than a year."