When Woods became "the" Tiger

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M. James Ward outlines how winning the PGA Championship 25 years ago became the springboard for winning seven of the next 11 major events.
Posted on
May 14, 2024
M. James Ward in ,
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

LOUISVILLE, KY — When Tiger Woods won his first major at the 1997 Masters with a record 12-shot margin the consensus was a stellar career was blossoming.

Woods would win four times in 1997 but his progress stalled in 1998 with only one win, although he finished in the top ten in three of the major events.

Tiger would add two more top-ten finishes in the first three majors in 1999. He would also win a total of eight times, with one coming in the final major of that year — the PGA Championship at Medinah.

The clarity of Tiger's career was there for anyone with eyes to see. His mesmerising swing produced prodigious tee shots and his surgeon-like iron play constantly placed him in advantageous positions to sink numerous putts.

His short-game prowess was the match of any on tour and he did the one critical thing that always separates players — sinking crucial putts when they matter most.

But nothing was more important to Woods than being at the front of a major. The event at Medinah was the start of a floodgate of total dominance not seen since the likes of Jack Nicklaus a generation earlier.

Medinah seemed tailor-made for Tiger. The course had ample length and placed a premium on consistent shotmaking.

However, the star of the tournament was 19-year Sergio Garcia. The Spaniard was playing in his first PGA Championship and he quickly garnered attention with a sparkling opening round of 66 that led the field.

Many touted the arrival of Garcia as the next coming of fellow countryman, Seve Ballesteros. But Garcia was unable to maintain his solid play and after 54 holes trailed leader Mike Weir by two shots.

Creeping up the leaderboard was Woods. His 135 total over the second and third rounds propelled him into a final round tie with Weir.

The fireworks of the final 18 were supplied by Woods as he birdied four of his first eleven holes and opened up a four-shot margin over Nick Price and five over Garcia.

However, Tiger would falter with a bogey at the 12th and an inexplicable double-bogey at the par-3 13th. Matters changed quickly as Garcia, who played immediately in front of Woods, would birdie the same hole and narrow the margin to a single shot.

Woods would gain a cushion when Garcia lost a shot at the 15th but Tiger returned the favor with a bogey at the 16th.

Garcia would demonstrate his shotmaking prowess at the dog-leg left 16th when his tee shot came up close to the bark of a tree. Needing to work his ball adroitly over roots Garcia closed his eyes as the club struck it. Seeing the ball heading towards the green Sergio scampered quickly up the fairway to see where it would land. Leaving himself a 45-foot birdie putt that he nearly holed.

For the final two holes Garcia could not narrow the margin, with a final birdie putt at the 18th just missing.

With a margin of just one stroke Woods needed two final pars to secure the win. At the par-3 17th his approach flew long and after playing a mediocre chip from deep rough, Woods steadied himself to sink a 10-foot par-putt and maintain the lead. An airtight par at the concluding hole sealed the deal – the first of four Wannamaker trophies Tiger would garner.

For many players the dropping of shots on a final nine holes at a major championship could have resulted in a doomsday scenario. Tiger's par putt at the penultimate hole served notice to any remaining critics that his first major success at Augusta in 1997 was anything but a fluke.

What is interesting is that what many people saw as a budding rivalry between Tiger and Sergio, turned out to be considerably less. As Woods progressed in his career by becoming the dominant player predicted of him — Garcia would still have considerable success, most notably in Ryder Cup play — but it would take till 2017 before he would secure his first and only major triumph at The Masters.

Woods would secure his second PGA title the next year at Valhalla, this year's host site, in an even more thrilling head-to-head duel with Bob May.

Over a span of eleven majors from his win at Medinah, Tiger would be in the winner's circle no less than a mind-boggling seven times. In all of those major victories Woods would either have the outright or shared 54-hole lead. Amazingly, never faltering — always getting to the winner's circle.

The competition knew full well that like an actual tiger in the wild, this Tiger was fully capable of stalking the competition and vanquishing them completely.

Medinah provided an opening salvo 25 years ago setting into place the foundation for one of the most compelling figures not only in golf but in all of sports.

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About M. James Ward

A GWAA and MGWA member, the 66-year-old from the USA has covered golf in all facets since 1980, notably the major championships and other high level events. He has played over 2,000 courses globally and has competed in USGA Championships.

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