Redefining the 'perfect 10'

Posted: April 04, 2007

ON THAT OVERCAST Sunday afternoon in Georgia, on a former nursery just off the chain-food emporium that masquerades as Washington Road, a 21-year-old home-run hitter sporting his mother's power color of choice and an assassin's glare did the unthinkable at Bobby Jones' enduring gift to the game.

Unforgettable, too.

Barely old enough to legally sip champagne at his victory dinner, he turned the most majestic 18 holes in the universe into his personal domain. Has there been a more perfect convergence? Tiger Woods, the chosen one. And Augusta National, the cathedral. The images and emotions from that mesmerizing week in April 1997 promise to resonate for as long as there's an Amen Corner.

Yet the most endearing snapshot wasn't any one swing, putt, or fist pump. Instead, it was an embrace. A warm, tearful bear of a hug that he shared with his father Earl as he walked off the 18th green. The man who had shared his dreams for so long. This was their moment, for all the world to see. So they wrapped their arms around each other, squeezed with all their might and wept as one. Neither wanted to let go. The feelings ran way too deep. They knew this day had been a lifetime in the making.

Yet as Finchem foresaw, this coronation wasn't just a culmination. It was a precursor.

"For this kid to be doing that, I don't know if it changed the rules," two-time U.S. Open winner Curtis Strange recalled. "But it sure made you take notice."

Indeed, the golfer formerly known as Eldrick had officially announced himself as the Pied Piper for a new generation encompassing black, white and all the other colors in the rainbow alike. And really, how often does the awe exceed the hype?

The only one who didn't seem so overwhelmed was the perpetrator, who never had broken par at the Masters in six rounds as an amateur.

"I thought I could win here when I was 19, because I was here," Tiger said at the time. "That's what I came here to do.

"I learned my lessons. I grew up. And it evolved into a victory."

An emergence unlike any other.

And it's never been the same. We sensed that he'd be special. This was way different. The playing field had shifted. Dramatically. And there has been no going back.

Have 10 years really passed since Tiger Woods won his first major as a professional, by becoming the youngest to ever win the Masters and the first African-American to win any major? And did he really finish a record 12 strokes ahead of everyone else, with a record score of 18-under-par 270? After opening with a 40 on the front nine Thursday? Of course, he did shoot a 30 on the back side, playing with three-time and defending champ Nick Faldo. And followed that up with rounds of 66, 65 and 69, when three more 70s would have been enough.

It was a defining moment in the sport. Perhaps even the defining moment. For when, where and how it happened. And what it all meant. Both then, and for the future. Here was a young man of color, doing stuff that didn't seem possible, at a place where the only thing men of color had ever been permitted to do was carry clubs or clean tables.

If it was a signal, who could fathom?

Did we mention the glazed look on the mugs of most of the golfers he left in his wake? See Exhibit 1, Colin Montgomerie, his third-round partner, who shot a 74 on Saturday to go from three down to numb.

When the carnage subsided, Tiger had broken or tied 26 Masters records. Unreal.

It came at a time when golf needed some saving. Jack Nicklaus, the greatest of them all, had won the last of his six Masters, and the last of his 18 professional majors, 11 years earlier. Before Woods, the previous 25 majors had been won by 22 different names, many of them non-American. Television ratings were treading water. Enter the ultimate X-factor.

Just ask Nike's Phil Knight, who envisioned all those golden possibilities, even when many snickered.

Sure, Woods had won three straight U.S. Amateurs. And his fifth event as a pro (as well as his seventh). But in golf, forever isn't measured by how many Buick Invitations you rack up. It's about green jackets and claret jugs.

And for the last decade, it has been mostly about Tiger. Because nobody his age has ever done it better. Before he's through, he might be the best there ever was, and ever will be.

This week he's going for his fifth Masters, one shy of Jack's record haul. And his 13th major, having won the last two.

Some fun.

"You could see it coming," Arnold Palmer said recently. "When Jack and I played practice rounds with him, it was our opinion that he would just win and win and win. I still feel that way. What can stop him? But people laughed when we said that. I didn't think there was anything funny about it. I was being pretty serious. And so was [Woods]. And I don't see him backing off. Who knows what he's [still] capable of doing? It may even go beyond what we thought."

If Tiger had six or eight majors at this point, that would be off the charts. Instead, he's just six shy of scaling Nicklaus' all-time mountain. And it's getting increasingly evident that he doesn't intend to stop at 18 or 19. The quest started 10 years ago this week.

"That wasn't the best golf he's ever played. But you can't overstate its significance," Strange said. "I mean, his 72 holes at Pebble Beach [2000 U.S. Open], to me, were far and away the best anybody's ever played in the history of the game. But that first Augusta, I don't know if any of us knew what to think. And to watch it come to fruition . . . "

That week he kicked it up to notches unknown. And he hasn't slowed. Digest the scope of this ongoing legacy:

* He holds or shares the scoring record in all four majors.

* He has led or shared the lead after 54 holes in 12 majors. He has won each time.

* He has won a Masters by 12, the U.S. Open by 15, a British Open by eight and a PGA by five. He also won another British by five.

* Nicklaus has announced his retirement from majors five times (he did it at the British Open twice). Tiger's won each time; could it be just a coincidence?

* He's the only man other than Ben Hogan in 1953 to win three of the modern majors in the same year.

* He's the only man to hold each of the four modern major trophies at the same time. And, of course, he's halfway to doing it again.

* He just won seven PGA Tour starts in a row. If anyone else wins back-to-back, it's huge.

Here's the extent of Tiger's prowess: Even when he does legendary stuff, it's almost viewed matter-of-factly. We expect it. He's desensitized us.

Meanwhile, Phil Mickelson has three majors. As does Vijay Singh and Ernie Els. Retief Goosen owns two, Jim Furyk one. Combined, that's only as many as Woods. And, they're all older. What more do you need to know?

It's a singular landscape.

Sure, he's had dry spells. He'll have more. And cynics will bring up the same questions. Obviously they don't pay attention. He went 28 months without a major after that first Masters. Then he swept seven of the next 11. In 2002 to '05 he went through a 10-major drought. Since then, he has added four more, to go with a second-place finish, a third and fourth.

Whenever someone's made a move on his throne he's responded, wiser and badder than before.

His place is understood. By both sides of the equation. As Chris DiMarco - who finished second behind Woods at the 2005 Masters and 2006 British Open - put it, "We all know where our bread is buttered."

It's a bad time to be a good player.

When Mickelson won last April's Masters, his second straight major, he was asked if that put him on equal footing, or perhaps even ahead of, you know who.

With a grin he answered: "No, it's [still] Tiger's world. I'm just living in it, like everyone else."

Whether said in jest or respect, it was a mouthful.

At one point, the gap between Woods and the second-ranked player on the planet was equal to the points differential between Nos. 2 and 50.

You can't make that up.

"Ernie Els came out earlier this year and said he'd put together a 3-year goal to compete against Tiger Woods and dethrone him," Strange noted. "All Tiger said was, 'You'd better raise your bar, because I'm going to get better.' That's like Michael Jordan telling you he's taking the last shot, so go ahead and do something about it."

Some don't like Woods because they don't want to see him surpass Jack. Some don't like him because they see him as an arrogant, private individual who never, ever lets down his guard. Some don't like him, because he's the New York Yankees. Some don't like him because he's not Mickelson. Some don't like him because he's black. It happens, sadly.

Whatever your stance, appreciate the fact that you're watching an absolute all-timer. Simple as that. And he might be entering his prime. He always had transcended the sport, to the extent there are two tiers of tournaments: the ones he plays in, and the rest. He moves the dial. People will tune in to watch him who couldn't tell a lob wedge from a 3-wood. They'll watch Mickelson, too. But often for different reasons.

One's virtually infallible. The other, for all his gifts, can be on the 72nd hole at last year's U.S. Open, when his tee shot caromed off a hospitality tent en route to a double bogey and a blown title.

"I got nasty letters when I was doing TV [as an analyst for ABC]," Strange said, "about always blowing too much smoke up Tiger's skirt. So I'd reply to those people and say, 'OK, you say that, but every time you watch him, he does something on the golf course that nobody else in this world can do. Nobody.' When you think of it in those terms, the reality is he's incredible. Do we pretend he isn't, or celebrate it?"

Bottom line? Tiger's rival isn't any contemporary. It's a 67-year-old former Buckeye who hasn't even won an individual title on the Champions Tour since 1996. No other way around it. That's who Tiger is trying to beat every time he sticks a tee in the ground.

Nobody understands that journey more than Nicklaus. Many didn't like him at first either. Because he was overweight. And he beat Palmer. Then, because he won too much. And he wasn't Lee Trevino. Or Tom Watson. But the older he got, the more the public came to revere him. Because he was the best. Of his era. Or any era. But maybe not forever.

"I can't imagine I was that good when I was his age," Nicklaus said not too long ago, through his publicist. "Maybe I was, but I can't imagine it. You always look at something [that happens] today and think it's pretty spectacular . . . 

"I never had any expectations for someone else. I just watch. I suppose it is very flattering that the No. 1 player today considers your records as the ones he is going after.

"It could've been someone else. But it's me."

He does see one not-so-subtle difference.

"On a worldwise basis, he has brought a tremendous number of people into the game," Nicklaus noted. "The impact of what he can do regarding the growth of the game sits largely on his shoulders. I didn't have that burden because [back then there were] a lot of other players that were quite good.

"But Tiger dominates so much, it's a pretty big responsibility. The press and the recognition he gets is tenfold of what I had. It comes with the territory. I don't think it's unfair at all. He has created this situation for himself, put himself in a position to have that placed on him, which is why he's playing. Of course he thrives on it. We all did."

Nicklaus said he watched only one round of golf last year on television. Tiger's final round of 67 at the British Open. Excellent choice.

"Quite frankly, that was my most memorable [Tiger] moment," he admitted. "It was superb, as good a finishing round of golf as I've seen anybody play."

Convention wisdom suggests there are many more chapters out there on the horizon. Might as well buckle up and continue to soak up the ride for all it's worth.

"Everyone wants to judge him right now," Strange said. "That's impossible, even though everyone has their opinions. Why not let him play, and judge him when he's through? We'll see.

"But the way I look at it is, we're watching history."

And the timeline began with a bang 10 years ago this week.

Finchem's words made perfect sense on that indelible Sunday. They still do. *

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