Tiger Woods' 1997 Masters win through the eyes of a longtime Augusta writer
(Editor’s note: With ESPN replaying the 1997 Masters tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET, we asked legendary Augusta Chronicle golf writer David Westin for his recollections of covering that tournament.)
I was one of those Tiger Woods doubters in the press room before the 1997 Masters Tournament.
As The Augusta Chronicle golf writer, I kept getting questions around town about Woods and his first Masters start at a professional. Could he win it?
No, I’d say, I didn’t think he was ready to break through, especially in his first major championship as a pro, at age 21. His record as an amateur at Augusta National (tied for 41st in 1995 and a missed cut in 1996) wasn’t impressive enough for me to think 1997 would be anything different.
Yes, he’d won twice on the PGA Tour in late 1996 and again to open the 1997 season, but he failed to break par in any round while tying for 31st in his last start before the Masters, at The Players Championship.
Above all, I didn’t think he putted well enough to win on the slick and contoured Augusta National greens. He would certainly have a number of 3-putt greens.
The 1997 Masters started for Woods just as I expected – he shot 4-over-par 40 on the front nine.
Suddenly, he started a run that would lead to a 12-shot victory with 20 Masters records shattered (including the tournament scoring mark and the youngest winner) and seven other records tied. That didn’t include, of course, his being the first Masters champion of color.
The best stat to put in perspective what he did over the final 63 holes is this: He played them in 22 under par. The next best anyone has ever done is 13 under. His winning 18-under 270 broke the 271 set by Jack Nicklaus in 1965 and Raymond Floyd in 1976. (Jordan Spieth, in 2015, has also shot 270).
I’ve covered 41 Masters, all for The Augusta Chronicle, starting in 1979, and something happened at the 1997 Masters that I’ve never seen before or since: the field was so stunned by what Woods did for the first three rounds (70-66-65) that it admitted no one could beat him. He was blistering an Augusta National course that was so tough that the average score at the end of the tournament was 74.3. Woods’ average score was 67.5.
Woods had the low round of the day on Friday (66, which gave him a three-shot lead) and Saturday (65, now a nine-shot lead).
Tom Kite, who trailed by 11 shots going into the final round, said that he would be playing for the silver medal that goes to the runnerup (he got it).
Italy’s Costantino Rocca was in second place after 54 holes, nine back, and knew he had no shot of catching Woods.
“It’s too far,” he said. “Maybe if I play nine holes, and under par, too.”
Even Colin Montgomerie, who sounded so confident after two rounds, had given up hope of winning.
After his second-round 67 left him three shots back of Woods after 36 holes, Montgomerie said “there’s more to it than hitting the ball a long way, and the pressure’s mounting now. I’ve got more experience – a lot more experience in major championship golf – than he has, and hopefully I can prove that.”
After being paired with Woods in the third round and shooting 74 to Woods’ 65, Montgomerie was a Woods convert.
“There is no chance,” he said. “We’re all human beings here. There’s no chance humanly possible that Tiger is going to lose this tournament. No way.”
Montgomerie was reminded that Greg Norman had blown a six-shot lead after 54 holes the previous year, losing to Nick Faldo.
“This is very different,” Montgomerie said. “Faldo’s not lying second, for a start. And Greg Norman’s not Tiger Woods.”
As for my pre-Masters prediction that Woods didn’t putt well enough to win on the Augusta National greens?
Well, not only did he putt well enough to win by 12 shots and set the tournament scoring record, but he didn’t have a single 3-putt green.
David Westin has been a staffer and contributor for The Augusta Chronicle after joining the newspaper fresh out of the University of Georgia in 1978. Westin is a native of Michigan, but spent time living in Augusta because his father was in the Army. He recalls going to the final round of the 1973 Masters, which finished on a Monday — and skipping school to do so.