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(Jaya Nicely)
(Jaya Nicely)

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“He Didn’t Fit the Mold of a Revolutionary”

Twenty years after Tiger Woods’s historic victory at the 1997 Masters, the golf icon is sitting out the tournament yet again. With his cultural impact dwindling by the day, friends, journalists, and fellow golfers reflect on Tiger’s increasingly complicated legacy.

It was the sound that got him that week, and it is the sound that still gets him today. It is the sound that Dan Forsman has been striving to produce nearly his entire life, the sound he’d aspired to as a caddy at a country club in Northern California, the sound he’d sought to perfect as a golfer at Arizona State, the sound he’d been attempting to replicate for more than 15 years as a professional on the PGA Tour. It is the symphonic percussion of a golf club hitting a ball flush, a sound so elevated and so Zen-like and so beautiful that it gives Forsman chills to recall it 20 years later.

Forsman was, by any reasonable standard, a very good golfer in April 1997. He’d won four professional tournaments, and he’d finished in the top 10 at two majors, including the Masters in 1993. He had sponsors and money and a solid career in a sport that is perhaps more capricious than any other. But his entire notion of his place in the world changed at the 1997 Masters, when he stood on the Augusta National driving range and watched Tiger Woods hit wedge shots to a flagstick roughly 90 yards from where he was standing.

That noise, even for the elite in this beguiling game, was not something easily summoned on command. It was a crack that signaled complete compression upon impact, the harmony of a club striking a ball with such sweetness that one couldn’t help but wonder if it was being produced by something other than human means. Tiger’s then-swing coach, Butch Harmon, stood and watched as Tiger aimed toward a green roughly the size of a kitchen table, and Forsman, a couple of spots away on the range, kept stopping to listen, too. It was as if this wiry thing in his Nike gear, this 21-year-old kid, could will the ball to a spot. It was, Forsman thought to himself, as if Tiger Woods’s strokes were somehow being stamped out of a machine that could reproduce a flawless golf swing, over and over again.

It was enough to make even a professional question everything. It was enough to make them think that maybe all those years of practice were utterly futile, enough to make them think that the world they’d grown up in was on the verge of seismic change. It was enough to make them wonder, If someone like this exists, then why the hell are the rest of us even trying?

This Masters marks 20 years since Tiger Woods’s victory at the 1997 tournament, which means that this Masters also marks the anniversary of what is arguably the most important week in the history of golf. Everything about that week could be captured in sound: the whip-crack of Tiger striking those massive drives, the roar of his galleries coalescing in waves like none ever heard on the genteel grounds of Augusta National, the heaving sobs of Tiger himself as he hugged his father, Earl, just off the 18th green after his 12-stroke victory over a stunned field of colleagues — nearly all of whom happened to be white, at an almost entirely white country club. It was, at the time, the largest margin of victory in any major tournament conducted on American soil; it was a record that would stand until Tiger, having won his first major, shattered it himself in the midst of winning 13 more.

That Masters still stands as one of the greatest performances in sports history, and that Masters still stands as a week that altered and exposed many things about both the Old South mentality of Augusta National Golf Club — a place where former club chairman Clifford Roberts had once declared that the golfers would always be white and the caddies would always be black while he lived — and about the insularity of the game of golf itself. One could feel what a win at Augusta would mean before it even happened, feel it in the way Earl spoke to Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith in the months leading up to it about the racism he’d endured while playing college baseball, about the time some neighborhood kids tied a 5-year-old Tiger to a tree and threw rocks at him while spewing racial slurs. For Tiger to win the Masters, Earl understood, would be a moment of revenge, a moment, as he told Smith, when his son would enter one of America’s last racist bastions and "overthrow it from within."

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

And yet 20 years on, there are no other prominent African American players on the PGA Tour; the sense still lingers, particularly among minority communities, that golf is a parochial country-club sport with opportunities available only to the privileged few. The popularity of the sport, particularly among young people, has declined precipitously since Tiger’s own decline began back in 2009, and while more African Americans became interested in golf during the Tiger years, many of them, African American Golfer’s Digest senior editor Edward Wanambwa tells me, were the "fringe golf fans" who were more intrigued by watching Tiger than by actually playing. Twenty years on, it is fair to say society has changed around Tiger Woods, but it’s also fair to ask how the sound of Tiger Woods striking a golf ball actually changed society.

What Tiger did that week is no less of a superhuman athletic feat now than it was back then, and it carries the same staggering social importance as it did back then. But the way in which those sounds have carried over the years wound up being far more complicated, far more puzzling, and far more of a mystery than most could have imagined at the time. History is not static, and nothing can stay that perfect and that unsullied for that long, and, as we know by now, few athletes have ever fallen from grace as starkly and suddenly as Tiger did. It’s odd to look back and realize, as both Tiger’s career and his own personal scandal begin to recede into the past — as he misses yet another Masters this week due to an aching back that won’t seem to heal — how difficult it is to capture what Tiger’s legacy will be, beyond the increasingly distant marvel of the golf itself. And it is not unreasonable to wonder if perhaps, despite everything that ’97 Masters represented, Tiger’s legacy may not reach much beyond the golf itself.

"I was talking to a friend of mine just the other day who’s a black guy and a golf instructor," says Wanambwa, whose publication thrived when Woods was at his peak but has struggled to find both an audience and a central purpose in the wake of Tiger’s retreat from competitive golf. "And we came to the topic of Tiger, and my criticism of Tiger is that he truly had a platform to effect a lot more change than he did. And I’m not knocking his [Tiger Woods] Foundation, but there’s a difference between an obligation to do something and a desire. I just think that one win [at the Masters] was bigger than Tiger. He had no choice. I mean, really, how could he avoid it?"

In a way, he was set up to fail by his own father, a man who spoke of his son in messianic terms before Tiger’s career had even truly begun. It was preposterous to assume, as Earl Woods did in the months before the Masters, that Tiger — his mixed-race son, the child who referred to himself as Cablinasian, who became a television star on The Mike Douglas Show at age 2, who played in his first PGA Tour tournament at age 16 — would "do more than any man in history to change the course of humanity." It was patently absurd to imagine, as Earl told Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith back in 1996, that Tiger would be a more impactful social figure than Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi. But it set up a narrative that the media quickly latched onto: that somehow, in some way, Tiger Woods would change so many things. And if he didn’t, were we inevitably supposed to presume he was somehow a failure?

Writer Charles P. Pierce, then at GQ, first punctured the balloon a few weeks before the 1997 Masters even began by transcribing Tiger’s raunchy jokes for print in a story (headlined "The Man. Amen") deliberately engineered to challenge Earl’s righteous prophesying. Pierce’s piece also forced Tiger, for the first time, into a cocoon that led him to distrust pretty much everyone outside his tight-lipped inner circle; this was no doubt bound to happen eventually, given the sudden and seismic nature of Tiger’s fame, but it happened so early in Tiger’s career that it seemingly helped to stir a sense of mistrust in everything outside of himself.

"It’s amazing how Tiger would take things to heart and make absolute decisions," says Golf Digest senior writer Jaime Diaz, who has written about Woods and his retinue perhaps more than any other journalist. "It’s like, ‘OK, that happened to me, and it’s never going to happen again.’ It was like a forever grudge. And I don’t think he liked having things thrust upon him, even by his dad. He didn’t like the idea that, ‘This is what I have to do because everybody expects it and because my dad said it.’ There was some rebellion there."

Part of that rebellion was against the weight of the history bearing down upon him, the history evoked in the lead Larry Dorman, the veteran New York Times golf writer, used in his story for the newspaper on the Monday after Tiger’s win:

It is an opening stanza that succeeds in capturing the gravity of the moment, but it is also one that set up some lofty expectations. And yet Dorman, speaking on the phone to me 20 years after he typed those words, admits that, in retrospect, the Masters was just that: a moment. Maybe Woods was a product of the relatively apolitical era in which he was raised, or merely an heir to the anodyne public approach of Michael Jordan; maybe, despite being raised in the public spotlight since that first precocious television appearance, he was a natural introvert whose father aspired for him to change the world outside of golf far more than he ever aspired to.

"I don’t think that’s what he wanted," Dorman says. "I think he wanted to be the best golfer, just like the guy he emulated, Jack Nicklaus. I just think it was asking a little bit too much at a very young age, and at a moment in his career when he was trying to establish himself in a very difficult game under a microscope. That’s asking for a whole lot. Just because he was a great golfer doesn’t necessarily mean he knows or has a depth of feeling about the kinds of things that happened during the racial struggles in the march on Selma."

And so, it’s worth asking: Does this failure to live up to his father’s prophecies even matter? Should it matter? What if, as Dorman says, Tiger Woods wanted to be a golfer more than he wanted to transform himself into a racial pioneer? What if those early commercials about the color of Tiger’s skin — those "I am Tiger Woods" ads that struck us with the full force of Nike’s marketing brilliance — were a poignant-enough message that maybe even Tiger himself thought they could stand on their own?

"It makes me want to stick it right up their asses," Tiger told SI back in 1996, when asked about the racism he’d faced.

He paused, and then finished his thought.

"On the golf course," he said.

So how much did Tiger, even before he was publicly disgraced, really want to avoid engaging with the political and the social noise that inevitably surrounded him? And how much did this come to define him?

"I think people were trying to put him in a box, and he wasn’t Jim Brown," says longtime Los Angeles Times golf writer Thomas Bonk, one of the few journalists who managed to forge a decent working relationship with Woods. "He grew up along with a lot of white kids who were his good friends. He didn’t fit the mold of a revolutionary. He was a businessman."

Maybe the golf Tiger played for roughly a decade in the wake of that Masters was such a blessed anomaly that we should relish it for what it was, rather than wondering if perhaps he could have done even more, rather than wondering if he might have eclipsed Nicklaus’s 18 majors long ago if only he hadn’t tripped himself up. Maybe there would be nothing else without the golf, which began to peak on that Thursday at Augusta in 1997. He teed off on the first hole trailing more hype than any other golfer in history, already the winner of three PGA Tour events, the awkward Stanford kid and winner of three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles who’d mumbled, "I guess, hello world, huh?" before his first tournament as a pro, the Greater Milwaukee Open, the year before.

The tour pros playing with him had no real idea what the hell to believe. Many of them just assumed that the kid must be overhyped, that no one could be that good at this age — that golf required an apprenticeship of sorts that began to pay off in one’s late 20s or early 30s. There was a difference between winning as an amateur and winning as a professional. That first week in Milwaukee, one fellow pro, Mark Calcavecchia, saw the crowds lined 10-deep on the fairway to catch a glimpse and didn’t really know what to think.

"Most of us had seen him on TV, but we hadn’t played with him," says longtime tour pro Lee Janzen. "So we thought maybe the hype was a little too much. When he first started, he said, I’m here to win every week. And we just assumed it was a little rambunctious to be thinking that way."

But once they saw him up close, once they realized what they were dealing with, it all began to change. Janzen played practice rounds with Woods a few times in Florida, often with Earl. He saw a kid who could nail a tree from 260 yards swinging into the wind, a kid who could chip and putt seemingly flawlessly at will. Still, the Masters, that would be the test. The Masters would be the measure of whether Tiger Woods could ever justify his own headlines, whether all this talk about breaking Nicklaus’s record before he’d won any majors was empty hyperbole. Was he even ready for any of this?

And the answer, at least at first, appeared to be a firm no.

On the front nine that Thursday, Tiger shot a 40. In the clubhouse, Janzen heard some other pros talking about him, saying, See? Saying, Kid’s gonna have to work on his distance control if he wants to win here.

"My feel wasn’t there," Tiger would later say. "I was upset that I’d made so many bad swings, and, worse, that the feel of a good swing had deserted me."

So Tiger took a moment between the front nine and the back nine to right himself. The anger that would flare so often during his career, he wrote years later, gave way to the serenity he’d inherited from his mother, Tida. He recalled the near-flawless practice rounds he’d played in Florida the week before; he summoned the indomitable willpower that we would come to associate with Tiger at this peak. When Dorman had called him a week before the tournament to see how he was playing — that was back in the day when a Times reporter could call Tiger without running the gauntlet of public-relations flacks — Tiger said something like, "Wide, tight, and ripping it."

And Tiger shot a 30 on the back nine.

It wasn’t really over after that, but it would be soon. It was one of those rare moments when a prodigy actually managed to exceed expectations. Woods overpowered the par-5s at Augusta in ways no golfer ever had before — "Made toys out of them," says fellow pro Fred Funk — and took angles of approach to greens that his fellow pros couldn’t even imagine. Calcavecchia recalls watching him hit such an enormous drive on the par-5 15th that Tiger needed nothing more than a wedge to reach the green. Come on, thought Funk. I can’t even reach that green going all-out in two shots. Forsman missed the cut but, so mesmerized by what he was watching, chose to stick around for the weekend and join Tiger’s massive gallery. When one golf writer spotted Forsman in the gallery, he asked, "What are you doing here?"

"I had to see it for myself," Forsman said. "Television doesn’t do it justice."

Mostly, all anyone could do was listen. The crowds were so thick that it was hard to see much of anything; so people just waited for that sound, the crack of club striking ball, rarely a fault line or a flaw, never a fatal mistake. Forsman had seen something like it once before, when Nicklaus rallied on the back nine to win the Masters at age 46 back in 1986. But this was different, this thing — this was youthful energy, new energy, the kind of energy golf had never really seen before. Tiger rendered the par-5s helpless, and he navigated the cruel par-3s with the same aplomb.

By the weekend, Tiger had utterly embarrassed the one golfer who had publicly proclaimed him vulnerable heading into the weekend, Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie, so much so that Montgomerie literally made a public proclamation of surrender. Lee Elder, one of the few African Americans to ever play Augusta, had made the trip to watch Tiger finish things off, getting a speeding ticket on the way.

That Sunday when it was over, Tiger said publicly that he understood he was playing for everyone who, like the African American golfer Charlie Sifford, had never had the opportunity to play the Masters; he was playing for his father’s African American heritage and his multiracial family, playing to silence the kids who had lashed out when he and his parents moved into a mostly white and middle-class suburb of Southern California. He was playing for the Augusta National employees and caddies who lined the clubhouse porch as he teed off on Sunday, whose very presence spoke to the weight of this moment. ("It’s like a passing," Ben Crenshaw told Diaz after the tournament). And yet even some of those same people expressed wariness about what Tiger might do in the long term.

Tiger Woods with his father, Earl (Getty Images)
Tiger Woods with his father, Earl (Getty Images)

"It’s like he doesn’t want to be embraced by the black community," longtime Augusta National caddie Carl Jackson told The Augusta Chronicle after watching Woods win that week. "I don’t want to disrespect his Asian blood, but his dad is a black man. In this country, in this world, what does that make you?"

In Atlanta, Wanambwa watched on television with his cousin and uncle and a few other friends, many of whom couldn’t have cared less about golf but wanted to watch one of their own crashing through a barrier to progress. Maybe he was carried away by the moment, but Wanambwa imagined that this was what it must have been like to see Jesse Owens win his gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in front of Adolf Hitler. Everything was set up for golf to become something entirely different.

"There was this expectation that it was going to open the floodgates for more African American players in the game," Wanambwa says. "But that never materialized."

After the tournament was over, Diaz, who had cultivated both a personal and professional relationship with Earl and Tiger, went back to the house where Woods was staying with his family. He gave Tiger a quick hug and said, "Man, you’re so good." And then, while Tiger’s friends and family and business representatives celebrated downstairs, he went up to his room and fell asleep hugging that green jacket.

It was so much, so soon. It was almost as if, now that he’d avenged the cruelties perpetrated against and limitations imposed on Sifford and Elder and Calvin Peete and all the other African Americans who had struggled before him, he could just play golf. Now he didn’t want or need to belong to anyone other than himself. All this, as Diaz recalls, was beyond even Earl’s ken now; when Tiger began to struggle with his obligations and with himself, with everything that was expected of him, Earl told him, "I understand how you feel."

And Tiger snapped back, "You have no idea how I feel."

Somehow in the late 1990s I stumbled onto a job as a golf writer for a newspaper in an Ohio town that hosted a professional tournament every year, which meant I would travel to the majors, which meant I was at Pebble Beach in 2000 when Tiger lapped the field at the U.S. Open. That may have been the peak of the sense of futility that Tiger imposed upon his fellow professionals. They were so flummoxed that I almost felt guilty asking question after question about Tiger, but really, what the hell else was there to talk about?

Many of those professionals began to change their approach entirely knowing that Tiger was always there, always a putt or two away from blowing the field to pieces. Knowing that Tiger could overpower the par-5s meant "par" for him on a course like Augusta was essentially 68 rather than 72, Janzen tells me, which meant you needed to shoot a 64 to catch him in the final round, which meant if you had a bad first hole, you immediately began to think, That’s it. I can’t do it.

"The expectations we had to put on ourselves were unrealistic," Janzen says. "I think that’s the way I explain why guys started playing so poorly in that position when they hadn’t done it like that before. At the [’97] Masters, when the tournament ended, I was really questioning, ‘Why did I change what I was doing, why did I think suddenly that I had to go out and shoot 63, when all I used to think about was the next shot?’ And that was just the beginning of him. There were a couple of times when we knew when he showed up that if he shot anything under par the first day, the tournament was over. And he knew that we knew that."

This was a phenomenon golf had never seen before. The week after winning the U.S. Open in 1998, Janzen played a tournament near Chicago, and had a gallery of maybe 50 people on the first tee. I just won a major, he thought. Where is everybody? And parallel to him, on the ninth hole, there was Woods, with 5,000 people surrounding him on the green. I know who no. 1 is, Janzen thought. And he’s right over there.

Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth (Getty Images)
Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth (Getty Images)

Tiger forced his fellow pros to start working out, because if the man they were all chasing was doing it, they had to do it, too. Tiger obliterated the notion that young golfers were required to pay their dues, setting a path for future phenoms like Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth. ("I got on Tour when I was 21, and I think I tied for 11th at the B.C. Open and won a whopping $6,600," Calcavecchia says. "I thought I was loaded.") He led Augusta National to "Tigerproof" its course, lengthening and tightening certain holes to keep long hitters like Tiger from overpowering it, and given its history, even that felt like one last spasm of racial animus from a club that had been forced to begin reconciling with its ugly past.

Tiger was the center of everything, and because television revenue went up when he played, so did the purses at tournaments, which helped to mute much of the resentment from his fellow pros: If they were going to finish a distant second, at least they’d make a hell of a lot more money for their troubles. By that standard — by the standard Tiger perhaps set for himself, to focus on changing the nature of competitive golf rather than changing the culture of golf itself, or somehow changing the world — he was a complete success.

"The only thing that gets me," Dorman says, "is when people start running down Tiger as a player. Because there isn’t anything to criticize, really."

It was a strange time to cover golf, because Tiger moved the needle like no one else did (or had). If you weren’t writing about Tiger, it felt like you were missing the story, but at the same time Tiger cultivated such a deliberately dull and nebulous public persona that it was hard to know what to say about him. It seemed like it all might go on for at least another decade, and then Earl died in 2006 and over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2009 Woods struck that fire hydrant with his Cadillac Escalade, and so began the tawdry tabloid-scandal era, the reveal of multiple affairs and concerned voicemails from Tiger that went public, the rehab for sex addiction, the divorce from his wife Elin, the shame and the disgrace. And so began the fall.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

As Tiger slowly turned away from both competitive golf and a public existence, as the scandal enveloped every aspect of his life, so too did people begin to turn away from golf. Television ratings declined, and millennials began to shun the sport as a relic of the past. Nike, which had built its entire golf business around the cult of Tiger, is no longer manufacturing golf equipment. Many of the people who tuned in to watch Tiger never actually started playing golf or buying clubs, says Dorman, who between stints at the Times worked for golf manufacturer Callaway.

What we’re left with is a sport that feels very much the way it did before Tiger, a sport that is inaccessible to many minorities and appears overtly dull to many young people — "No one wants to see a bunch of good-looking, rich country-club kids beat each other on the golf course," Wanambwa says, when I ask him about the recent struggles of African American Golfer’s Digest — and is trapped in the same niche it was back in 1996, when Earl Woods made those impossible proclamations about his son. Ask people about why Tiger’s influence didn’t translate into more African American golfers, and no one seems to have a good answer beyond the fact that access to the highest levels of training and instruction still feels more exclusive than democratic. (Interestingly enough, the one place it has happened more than anywhere else is on the LPGA Tour, where several young African American golfers — one of whom is Woods’s own niece — have begun to make an impact.)

So what if, Wanambwa wonders, Woods had done just a little bit more? What if, Wanambwa says, he’d mentored a few young African American golfers, in the way Darren Clarke had once mentored a young Rory McIlroy in Northern Ireland? What if, Wanambwa asks, Tiger had sponsored a tournament for minority golfers that gave them access to the best courses and the best equipment? It wouldn’t have cost him any money given Nike’s backing, and it would have avoided that whole "political racial thing," Wanambwa tells me, by allowing Tiger to say he was doing what he could to improve golf and afford more opportunities to minorities. Maybe those little things would have been enough to open doors, to clear away the overarching sense of elitism that still defines golf some 20 years after Tiger appeared poised to clear it all away.

"A lot of people in the black community, they felt like they had no real connection to Tiger Woods," Wanambwa says. "So even after the fall, it was, ‘Hey, I told you that was going to happen.’ He’s just stayed aracial. I guess he’s just been Tiger."

Nobody really knows what Woods has been searching for in the seven-plus years since the crash. I’m not sure Woods himself even knows at this point, or how much he desires to make a comeback beyond the public catharsis doing so would provide. His swing is a constant work in progress, his body wracked by one ailment after another. He withdrew from many of his friendships, trained with Navy SEALs, turned 40, hired and fired swing coaches and caddies, dated a celebrity athlete, and largely confined himself to a private existence. In March, he published a book, written with Canadian journalist Lorne Rubenstein, about that ’97 Masters, but Woods did only a few interviews about it, and even Rubenstein has declined requests (including mine) to speak about the project.

"[Tiger] lives literally four miles from me here in Jupiter [Florida]," Calcavecchia says, "and I haven’t seen him in seven years."

"I hardly see him," Janzen says. "And it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to talk to him."

"He’ll never be what he was," Funk says. "And he knows that, and everybody knows that now. And the guys that he would have to beat now never even played against him. They don’t know. They’ve only read about Tiger."

It is part of history now, the sound of those clubs striking a golf ball with unprecedented precision, the sheer mechanical brilliance Forsman witnessed that day on the driving range. After watching Tiger during his third round, Forsman figured he had to stay for the final day of play, too, and he followed Tiger again, witnessing the moment, every hole "a walk of unbelievable magnitude." Twenty years later, Forsman can still hear it, the echoes of the crowd and the sound of a golf swing that changed so many things, but was never really engineered to change everything.

Thanks to Erin Barney, Paolo Uggetti, Daniel Varghese, and Ryan Wright for transcription assistance.

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