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10 years later, Tiger remembers The Hug

WP: Ask Tiger Woods what he remembers most about his historic victory in the 1997 Masters, and his answer has little to do with his record-breaking 72-hole score of 18-under-par 270, or his unprecedented 12-shot winning margin -- after a disastrous 4-over 40 on his first nine holes -- in becoming the youngest champion, at age 21, in tournament history. Instead, he always goes back to The Hug.
Tiger Woods (L) is hugged by his father Earl Woods
Earl Woods, right, hugs his son Tiger Woods on April 13, 1997 after Woods set a new 72-hole course record by shooting an 18-under-par 270.Bob Pearson / AFP-Getty Images file
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Ask Tiger Woods what he remembers most about his historic victory in the 1997 Masters, and his answer has little to do with his record-breaking 72-hole score of 18-under-par 270, or his unprecedented 12-shot winning margin -- after a disastrous 4-over 40 on his first nine holes -- in becoming the youngest champion, at age 21, in tournament history.

Instead, he always goes back to The Hug.

As he headed to the scorer's hut after holing his final putt of the day, his father, Earl, intercepted Woods and enveloped him a long, lingering embrace.

"I guess for me, personally, now that my father is no longer here, I know how important that hug was to me on the last hole," Woods said two weeks ago. "You know, the year before, he had a heart attack at the Tour Championship, and he ended up having heart surgery again. He had complications. I was in Florida and flew straight back, and he was actually dead for a while. . . . He used to tell the story that: 'Yeah, I saw this warm light, I was kind of headed toward it. I said hey, you know what, I grew up in Kansas, so let me go back the other way.'

"And when he went back the other way, all of a sudden he heard the [medical monitors] beeping and he came back. He just always used to say, 'I'm not ready for the place yet.' So he went down to Augusta the week of the Masters against his doctor's orders. He wasn't supposed to travel. . . . I had been playing pretty well up until that point. But I get there and I can't putt a lick -- the worst speeds, the worst lines."

So, just as he'd done all his life, Earl Woods, who died last May after a long battle with prostate cancer, gave his son a putting lesson. The next day, Woods -- in his first Masters as a professional -- struggled on his front nine until he finally made a decent putt to save a bogey at the ninth hole, and he was off and running.

"All of a sudden it happened," he said. "I made a bomb on number 10, chipped in on 12. When I got up to Saturday night with dad, he and I were just sitting there, past midnight, and we were just talking. He said: 'You know, it's going to be the most important round of your life, but you can handle it. Just go out there and do what you do. Just get in your own little world, go out there and thrash 'em.' So that was the mind-set. When I hugged him on 18, looking back on it now, I could not have won that tournament without him."

As Woods prepared to tee off for his final round that Sunday 10 years ago, the sociological implications of what he was about to do also were plainly evident. On the clubhouse balcony, 50 yards from the first tee, scores of Augusta National's waiters, busboys, cooks and other service personnel, virtually all of them African American, leaned over the railing to see history in the making.

Down on the ground, standing on a slight incline to get a better view, Lee Elder, the first African American to play in the Masters in 1974, tried and failed to control his own emotions. He had taken a flight from his home in South Florida that morning and made the 2 1/2 -hour drive from Atlanta's airport, going so fast he was stopped for speeding by an unforgiving Georgia trooper. And as Woods prepared to hit his first shot, Elder could barely speak as tears flooded his eyes.

"If Tiger Woods wins here, it might have more potential than Jackie Robinson's break into baseball," Elder said that day. "No one will turn their head when a black man walks to the first tee."

When he walks to the first tee here on Thursday to play in his 13th Masters, all heads will turn toward Woods, arguably the most formidable force the game has ever seen. Thousands will trail him around Augusta National, and millions more will watch on televisions or computers around the world.

Woods, 31, already owns four green jackets and is heavily favored to win a fifth. He has won 12 majors, second only to his childhood hero, Jack Nicklaus. He has 56 victories on the PGA Tour and seems likely to shatter Nicklaus's record 18 major titles by the time he's 35. Nicklaus, who won his last major at age 46, has said that Woods seems a cinch to extend his record far beyond the reach of anyone who ever follows.

In recent weeks, a number of Woods's playing peers have been asked what they remember most about his '97 Masters tour de force, and almost all say they were in absolute awe of the accomplishment.

"It looked so flawless, so easy, like he was totally on another level," said his friend Annika Sorenstam, arguably the most dominant woman in the history of her game. "It felt like something new was happening, just the beginning of something new and exciting. He had the talent, the dedication, the hard work. The way he did it inspired people. It's the same as what Lance Armstrong did winning all the time in the Tour de France. When someone looks at me, I guess I'd like to hear the same things."

David Toms watched the '97 Masters on television, a year before he qualified to play here for the first time.

"I was one of those guys who wasn't sure how well he was going to do as a professional," he said. "I knew his pedigree was there and that he had a great game, but to be able to do that and be able to lap the field in a major championship, it was a big deal for the game of golf. It just kind of set the tone for where he's gone with his game since then. And he hasn't looked back. He set the tone for the future of golf for the next ten years, at least."

Nick Faldo, who had won his third Masters the year before, knew he had witnessed something special, but he said Tuesday that at first he thought the victory was more attributable to Woods's game being a perfect fit for the golf course.

"I thought Augusta National was extremely suited to his game," Faldo said. "But the way he's been able to adapt to win other majors on different style courses is an incredible thing. . . . After 40 [Thursday on the front nine] and then to end up at 18 under par. We saw it all unfold, but I don't think we really believed it. Nobody believed you could take the lead at Augusta National and just keep adding and adding and adding."

Charles Howell III, an Augusta native, was a freshman at Oklahoma State and a highly regarded junior player who eventually became one of Woods's best friends when he turned pro in 2000. He also watched on television that weekend and knew he was witnessing history.

"That really was a massive springboard for the game, for him to come here, win by that margin at the age he won it at," Howell said this week. "And what he's done for the game in the past 10 years is huge. I think we all probably owe Tiger a little bit of a percentage of everything that we make just because of what he's done. He's been a godsend for the game of golf."