Tiger Woods won his first major championship after a record-breaking performance at the 1997 Masters. Some observers consider it the defining win of his career. (AP)

Forget for a moment the list of victories. Forget the red shirts on Sunday. Forget the SUV hitting the fire hydrant and the salacious scandal.

In April of 1997, Tiger Woods was 21 years old and on the rise. He’d been named the 1996 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, but Woods’ start at the Masters was ugly.

“What is sort of lost in the story is that he went out in the first nine holes and played horrible,” said New York Times reporter Bill Pennington, who was there. “He shot 40 in his first nine holes that Thursday, which is pretty much you’re on your way to shooting 80 and you’re done.”

Then the crowd in Augusta, Georgia got their first glimpse of something more powerful than Woods’ monster drives … his focus. On the back nine, he shot 30, to finish the day 2-under par.

“No one in all of the rounds that had been played at the Masters before that had ever shot 40-30. Thousands of rounds and it was a first. I don’t know that anybody had a sense [at that point] that he was going to win,” Pennington said. “It was just this amazing turnaround from a guy who in the middle of round recognized what he was doing wrong and could change it.”

By the end of the day, Woods was three strokes off the lead. By the end of his next round he was ahead by three. On Sunday morning he was up by nine. A year earlier, Greg Norman squandered a large lead at Augusta National … Tiger Woods would not make that mistake.

As Woods’ final put dropped in, CBS announcer Jim Nantz declared, “There it is! A win for the ages!”

Woods set a Masters record with a four-round total that put him 18-under par. He beat runner-up Tom Kite by 12 strokes, another tournament record. He was the youngest player to don the iconic green jacket. All of those marks still stand. Sports Illustrated Senior Writer Alan Shipnuck covered the tournament and still views it as Woods’ defining performance.

“To do it on that stage with the socio-political overtones of Augusta National [and] the wave of excitement he rode into town on and to deliver, it really is, looking back, even more incredible than we realized at the time,” Shipnuck said.

The other major championships jump from venue to venue, but the Masters never leaves Augusta National, where change is rare and slow. Woods became the first player of African or Asian descent to win a major just seven years after Augusta National welcomed its first black member. And his appeal crossed all demographics. Shipnuck says rocket launcher drives were the initial draw, but Woods gave them many more.

“Tiger’s charisma isn’t as a person, it’s as a performer. The smiles, the fist pump, the brooding intensity, all in one round or sometimes one hole even,” Shipnuck said. “There are so many things that make him riveting performer.”

It always makes a difference when you have further to fall and I think [Tiger] had further to fall.
– Charlie Pierce on the scope of Woods' sex scandal
Over the next three and a half years Woods would record 20 more victories and his impact on the game began extending far beyond the fairways. Tournament television ratings climbed when he was playing well, which was pretty much all the time. Increased tour sponsorships followed. Meanwhile, with Woods as its spokesman Nike became a player the golf equipment business.

 

Golf.com Deputy Editor David Dusek says one aspect of the sport that didn’t surge along with Tiger was casual golf.

“Tiger’s arrival in professional golf was fantastic for his competitors. It was great for television,” Dusek said. “But we did not see the surge in participation that we anticipated seeing and we haven’t really, to this point, seen the surge in minority participation that we would have anticipated from Tiger’s arrival.”

Expecting one man to fill up tee times across the land might have been a stretch, but filling up trophy cases was no problem. In 1999 Woods started a streak of 264 weeks as the world’s top-ranked golfer. After reclaiming the spot in June 2005, he held it for another 281 weeks. Knee injuries and swing adjustments qualified as significant disruptions in Tiger’s world …  until late 2009 when news of his numerous extramarital affairs started to come out.

Only A Game’s Charlie Pierce profiled Woods for GQ in 1997. The story included the phenom flirting and telling off-color jokes.

“It always makes a difference when you have further to fall, and I think he had further to fall,” said Pierce. “There were at least breadcrumbs that might lead you in the right direction that things were not always what they seem. I wouldn’t take an enormous amount of credit for that, and I certainly wouldn’t have anticipated his sex life would turn out to be such a baroque public carnival as it turned out to be.”

In December 2009, Woods withdrew from the PGA Tour. He returned for the Masters in 2010, but didn’t earn a tour victory until the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando last month. Now Woods is one tour victory away from tying Jack Nicklaus’ record of 73. But the real record to beat is Nicklaus’s 18 major championships. Woods has 14.

Can a Tiger beat a Golden Bear?

Bill Pennington of the New York Times believes that question could end up unresolved.

“I’ve been having this feeling for a while that he’s going to end up tying him. And maybe in some ways that would be the best outcome for people that watched Jack Nicklaus play and how Jack Nicklaus has handled himself and what he means to the game. And that is a reasonable assumption for [Tiger] to win four more.”

By Nicklaus standards Woods has plenty of time. He’s 36 years old. Nicklaus was 46 when he won his final major championship.

And yes, it was the Masters.