CHARLIE MULQUEEN: Reliving the day Tiger became a sporting superstar

THE 1997 Masters was the eighth — and most memorable — of my 20 visits to Augusta.

Nick Faldo was the defending champion and was amongst the short-priced favourites for victory.

However, the airwaves and newspapers had been full of a young aspirant to one of golf’s major championships for several months and Augusta National itself was so convinced of Tiger Woods’s credentials that they sent him out in the first round with the Englishman.

It was a pairing that captured the imagination of the sporting world and my directive from home base was to follow Faldo and his 21-year-old challenger. Such was the build-up you could almost cut the tension when the players made their way to the first tee on a bright, cloudless Thursday morning.

Just as quickly, a sense of anti-climax overcame the wildly excited throng of patrons (as August National insist on calling the fans) as both appeared to be overcome by the sense of occasion.

Woods took 40 to the turn, Faldo was one worse off. I wasn’t the only journalist out there wondering how to turn this into a readable piece.

We needn’t have worried. While Faldo battled gamely to sign off for a 75, Woods took off in a blaze of birdies and eagles on his way to a back nine of 30, one stroke off Mark Calcavecchia’s 1992 record. He birdied the 10th from 15 feet, chipped in from the back of the 12th, two putted the long 13th for a four before blasting a 350 yards drive at the 15th and hitting a wedge to four feet for an eagle that took him to one under par. A 12-footer at 17 moved him to two under and in sole possession of fourth.

Nines of 40 and 30 for Tiger’s first sally round Augusta National as a professional. Wow! Gratefully, all of that left us with plenty to write about but few could have foreseen what was to follow over the next three days. An effortless 66 on Friday confirmed this young man was, indeed, something special. His nearest pursuer was Colin Montgomerie, three shots back, and the Scot wasn’t for conceding: “I’ve got a lot more experience in major championship golf than he has and hopefully I can prove that.” Those words would come back to haunt him after he closed with rounds of 74 and 81 to finish in a tie for 30th — 24 shots behind Woods.

By the end of round three, the 61st Masters had become a matter of match play: Tiger Woods versus the Record Book. On the Saturday, he returned a seven-birdie, no-bogey 65 that tripled his lead to nine. It was the largest 54-hole lead in Masters history. His total for the middle two rounds — 131 — set a new record. At 21 he became the youngest player to lead the Masters and the first man since Skee Riegel in 1950 to lead on his professional debut. Woods was poised to break the 72-hole mark of 271 set by Jack Nicklaus in 1965 and Ray Floyd in 1976. Countless other “firsts” were also on the cards.

He duly arrived on the first tee on that historic Sunday wearing a red shirt — his power colour — and black trousers. He was met by Lee Elder, the first African-American golfer to compete in the Masters.

“That just inspired me”, said Woods later. “It really reinforced what I had to go out there and try to accomplish.”

For Tiger, level par 36 for the first nine was no great shakes. But he cruised through Amen Corner in two under and went ahead of the Record Book with a six-footer for another gain at the 14th. After that, Tiger was never going to be denied the record low aggregate of 270. He walked off the final green and into the arms of his father having become the youngest player to win the Masters (21 years, 3 months) and enjoyed the largest margin of victory, 12 ahead of runner-up Tom Kite. Woods subsequently won the Masters in 2001, ‘02 and ‘05. He is the 7/2 favourite for a fifth green jacket this week.

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