AUGUSTA, Ga. — It’s been 10 years to the week since Tiger Woods revolutionized golf, winning the Masters by 12 strokes in his first major as a professional with a tournament record score of 270, 18 under.
Virtually every facet of the game has undergone radical Woods-driven changes in the interim (popularity, purses, equipment, courses, etc.). Perhaps the ultimate testament to his greatness, however, is that nothing in golf has evolved more than Woods himself.
“My whole life has changed, and it’s been a pretty dynamic change, the entire process the last 10 years,” Woods said yesterday at the 71st Masters after his third preparatory loop around Augusta National.
Gone is the skinny, 21-year-old with the handsy, upright action who approached every golf course like a Viking eyeing the English coastline. In his place is a 31-year-old man, an athlete and a strategist.
Gone are caddy Mike “Fluff” Cowan and coach Butch Harmon. In Cowan’s place is Steve Williams and in Harmon’s place is Hank Haney.
Gone is a college girlfriend, law student Joanna Jagoda. In her place is former model Elin Nordegren, Woods’ wife.
And gone is Earl Woods — father, mentor, friend.
Concluding with Earl’s death last May and the announcement Woods would become a father this July, both Tiger’s life and game have undergone a complete overhaul since that week in April 1997. And none of those changes have had more impact on Woods than the life-cycle moments he’s experienced since his last trip to Augusta National, where he finished three shots behind Phil Mickelson after one of the most emotionally taxing weeks of his life.
“Last year was a lot more difficult than I was letting on, because I knew that was the last tournament [Earl] was ever going to watch me play,” Woods said. “I just wanted to win one for his last time and didn’t get it done, and it hurt quite a bit.
“Heading into this year, it’s a totally different mindset. I lost a father and now I’m going to become a father, so it’s two different places in my life.”
Ten years after the revolution, Woods the man is nothing like Woods the prodigy. Even before Augusta National made matching his 270 total impossible by adding rough, trees and 640 yards of length (now par-72, 7,445 yards), Tiger had intentionally taken 18-under out of play.
The sinewy master of 12 major titles is more subdued these days. He takes both 65 and 75 out of play before ever taking a swing in the Slams. Conservatively plotting his way around the game’s toughest venues, Woods, like Jack Nicklaus, waits for his more aggressive, less-experienced challengers to crash around him. Each major he wins seems equally defined by a pile of minor collapses.
“I was certainly raw in ‘97,” Woods said. “My course management skills, my shot variety, I didn’t really have too many shots. I didn’t really have the trajectory control that I do now. And I certainly didn’t have the 10 years of experience of playing out here on tour and learning how to manage my game. That’s something that you just can’t replace.”
There are, though, some constants that remain from Woods’ youth: the Sunday scarlet, a celluloid smile, a kamikaze will and incomparable dominance.
“I don’t think I could have imagined the impact that Tiger Woods has had on the game of golf,” said defending champion Phil Mickelson, who has combined with Woods to claim five of the last six green jackets. “If I have a great rest of my career, and I go out and win 20 more tournaments and seven more majors to get 50 wins and 10 majors, which would be an awesome career, I still won’t get to where he’s at today. So I don’t try to compare myself against him.”
Golf’s also-rans have all given up such insanity, coming to a consensus, if not complete capitulation, that Woods at his best is an unchallengeable champion.
The only real question at Augusta National is which Woods will show up this week. Will it be the player who crushed all comers in the last two majors of 2006 and has won twice in just three stroke-play starts this season? Or will it be the Woods who struggled with his accuracy a month ago at Bay Hill, losing it left early in the week and right later (guarding against the former) en route to finishing tied for 22nd?
The daunting reality is that his D-game produces a top-25 finish. And at Augusta National, where he boasts four titles and holds superior knowledge of the course, he’s a virtual certainty to be in the Sunday mix.