by Paul Mahoney
We’ll never forget the ride
The red shirt on Sunday, the fist pump, the beautiful violence of those 300-yard drives, the record book ripped up, the kid making golf cool for the first time since Arnold Palmer arrived in the 1950s.
The 1997 Masters was golf’s Heartbreak Hotel moment and Tiger Woods was Elvis Presley. As John Lennon said: “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
That year, Tiger buried a generation. Nick Faldo was the reigning champion. He was 38 and brilliantly boring. He played the first two rounds with Tiger and got a front-row seat at the announcement that his career as the alpha male was over.
In the third round, Woods played with Colin Montgomerie. He was 33. It was last orders, too, for Europe’s record-breaking No 1. He would never win a major until he joined the Seniors Round Belly Tour. The irony.
A 21-year-old black man beat all the old white men by 12 shots in the Deep South. I watched all this on late-night television with my mouth wide open.
Three months later, Tiger-mania hit the one-dog town of Troon in Ayrshire as the new Masters champion flew in for the Open Championship. I nearly got pushed over in the stampede for his autograph as he made his way to the practice range on the Tuesday.
Hundreds of children with faces painted in Tiger stripes were yelling their hero’s name. Pop culture had invaded the oldest golf tournament. It looked and sounded and felt fabulous.
The R&A blazers must have wondered what the bally-heck had happened to their ancient game. Kids loved Tiger. It was the biggest free grow-the-game initiative ever. Before anyone had ever thought of that dozy mantra.
Nike ran an advertisement campaign to tap the zeitgeist. But mainly to sell stuff, obviously. “I am Tiger Woods,” Nike got loads of kids to say. It worked. Kids held signs declaring such and waved them at Tiger.
In those days, he waved back. Until all the attention scared the hell out of him and he retreated inside his cocoon of bodyguards never to look a spectator in the eye again. Troon was the beginning of Tigermania. And the end for Tiger of living normal life.
The first time I saw him at the Masters, in 1999, I couldn’t see him. But I knew it was him by the size of the crowd corralling the practice putting green. But, just like no-one cared that Justin Leonard won that Open at Troon, there were only about a dozen reporters in Jose Maria Olazabal’s champion’s press conference come Sunday. Everyone else was chasing a word from Tiger.
He finished 18th but looked like he owned the place.
The Tiger Slam
The hype in 2001 was off the charts. Tiger had won the 2000 US Open and Open by about 150 shots then added the PGA Championship. All of which meant he jetted in to Augusta in April with a chance to complete a slam of holding all four majors at the same time.
Of course he did it. On the way out of the clubhouse to play the final round, his mother held out her hand for him. But Tiger never even saw her. He was in the zone. Seeing no-one. Hearing nothing. Just annihilation on his mind.
He blanked his mother. His opponents had no chance. Tiger and Phil Mickelson were the final group. Americans were fainting at the prospect. But it was no contest. Tiger was at the height of his dominating Phil period.
Nothing happened in 2002. It rained a lot and Tiger retained his title on autopilot. Sitting in the clubhouse chatting to Tiger’s manager Mark Steinberg before the third round, Tiger came down the stairs from the champions’ locker room.
Steinberg shouted: “Go get ’em, Woodsy.” Tiger glanced over, said nothing, turned away and walked out of the door. Woodsy? He calls him Woodsy?
Woodsy got off to his usual slow start again in 2005 as Chris DiMarco kept his lead through- out all the rain delays when the course stank of horse manure. Then on Sunday, with 27 holes still to play, Tiger decided enough DiMarco, already.
Tiger won his fourth green jacket but not before he engineered one of the greatest shots of all time that was so perfect it became a Nike advertisement. He chipped in at the 16th, the ball pausing to bow before dropping into the cup.
I was there. In the back row of the bleacher beside the green. The loudest roar I have ever heard at a golf tournament. As Tiger and his caddie were high-fiving the heck out of each other, I was being hugged by strangers as they whooped and hollered.
Tiger still had to take DiMarco down an extra play-off hole to win but the 16th was where he sucked the life out of DiMarco and the breath out of everyone who witnessed it.
And then he drove into a fire hydrant in November 2009 and everything changed. Sex scandal. Porn actresses. Waitresses. Humiliation. Exile.
When Tiger returned at the Masters in April 2010, everything was different.
In a pre-tournament address, Augusta chairman Billy Payne tut-tutted that Tiger had fallen short in his duties as a role model and had “disappointed all of us and, more importantly, our kids and our grandkids”.
When Tiger walked in for his own press conference, the power body language was no more. It was the end of an aura. You could see the shame and embarrassment in his eyes.
There were guffaws and wisecracks from the crowd as he practised putting before the first round. An aeroplane circled pulling a banner with a slogan that mocked the World No. 1. “Sex Addict? Yeah. Right. Sure. Me Too!” We all saw it. Tiger must have seen it, too.
It’s been 20 years since Tiger began his revolution. But he hasn’t won a major since 2008. He was number one for a total of 683 weeks but now his body and mind are broken. If he tried that 1997 trademark uppercut now, he’d have to be carried off the course on a stretcher.