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Tiger Woods' major debut became a tale of Burnt Biscuits, tough lessons and Augusta awe

By John Skilbeck
Tiger Woods at Augusta in 1995 - cropped

New York, April 6: Nervous as hell, Tiger Woods stood over his first putt at The Masters and gave the ball a fair thunk towards the hole, near as dammit 25 feet away.

Crowds were already swarming for Woods, the college kid making his major championship debut in a pairing with the defending champion, Spain's Jose Maria Olazabal.

The date was April 6, 1995. A quarter of a century ago. A drizzly Thursday in Georgia.

THE BALL THAT KEPT ROLLING

Nineteen years old and accordingly fresh-faced, Woods was already a mighty draw, the Stanford student a prodigy around whom hype had swirled since he was barely as tall as the putter he now gripped tightly.

His ball shuffled closer to that first hole, rolling by, just needing to hold up. No birdie then, but a par four at the hole they call Tea Olive would have been a satisfying, becalming start. This, famously, is where Ernie Els in 2016 would shamble to a quintuple-bogey nine.

As Woods was about to discover, its green demands the utmost care and concentration.

Woods had taken a close enough look at that first putt, studied the undulations of the green. Heck, he had played the course already that week in practice rounds alongside Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Raymond Floyd and Fred Couples. This time, though, the ball had shot off his putter just a touch punchier than necessary.

Just hold up. Stop rolling. It kept rolling.

"People on the other side of the green started moving," Woods remembered. "It's never good when you hit a putt and people start to move."

AN ENQUIRING MIND OPENS DOORS

By the time Woods woke on the morning on his Masters bow, he could plot out a good map of Augusta National.

Not just the course and its colourful flora, but the corridors, nooks and crannies of its clubhouse were becoming imprinted on the mind of the teenage Woods. He was staying for the week in the Crow's Nest, the quaint, rather rustic second-floor accommodation reserved for players from the unpaid ranks, with Woods in the tournament by virtue of being the reigning U.S. Amateur champion.

He knew where the Butler Cabin was to be found, should the need ever arise, and a little after-hours exploration had seen him try many an unlocked door to discover what lay behind.

An enquiring mind led him to the champions' locker room.

"There was no one in there, so I walked through," Woods said. "No ghosts that I know of."

Woods not only dreamt of becoming Masters champion, he realised millions expected him to someday triumph. Sports Illustrated had already run a nine-page feature, conscious of his rare talent.

Norman, who had been twice a runner-up by that stage, said on the eve of the tournament that the rookie possessed the game to carry off the Green Jacket that very Sunday.

Woods climbed out of bed and went for a morning run before heading to the practice range with coach Butch Harmon.

CHICKEN ON THE MENU

Woods was the boy wonder with the world in his feet. His game had everything. Everything, that is, but the ability to have a second stab at that first Masters putt; to rein it back, grin to the crowds, and play it again.

That stray ball duly rolled off the first green, down an embankment, and came to a muddy rest 50 feet away from the hole.

Woods turned to caddie Tommy Bennett, the experienced Masters bag man he had hired for the week. Bennett went by the nickname 'Burnt Biscuits' - earned the day he scalded himself on the leg when illicitly snaffling freshly baked treats from his grandmother's kitchen.

Back went the putter, out came a short iron.

Down among the patrons, squirming amid his first Masters humiliation, Woods played a recovery shot that could have turned out better, leaving a dicey bogey putt. He later berated himself for a "chicken shot", just as he had after the timid sand wedge to the green that left the long-range putt, that led to all this palaver.

If there was any solace to be taken from that torturous misread moments earlier, it at least prepared Woods for putt number two.

This time, as Woods later wrote in his Masters memoir, Unprecedented: "I made it. Great start to my Augusta career. Hit the green in regulation, and then hit my first putt off the green."

STAYINGFOR THE WEEKEND, SIR?

Not every golfer who flunks Augusta's first hole lands amega-money book deal.

From that inauspicious start, Woods has proceeded to win five Masters titles, most recently last year when he ended an 11-year trophy drought at the majors, sealing his comeback from back injury woes and the scandal that upended his career.

Whether there will be a 2020 Masters remains to be seen. The tournament scheduled for this week had to be postponed because... well, we all know why. Woods might have to wait until 2021 for his latest title defence.

In 1995, Woods shook off the dropped shot on that first hole of his Masters career, seeing his name up on the leaderboard briefly before signing for a level-par 72.

A repeat in round two earned a stay for the weekend. As the lone amateur to make the cut- Trip Kuehne, Lee S James, Guy Yamamoto and Tim Jackson fell by the wayside - Woods was king of the Crow's Nest.

Woods wrote himself out of contention with a 77 in round three, but a third 72 of the week came on the Sunday, securing a tie for 41st place, albeit 19 shots behind champion Ben Crenshaw.

A CHAMPION'S INSTINCT

Woods' stated goal of becoming "the Michael Jordan of golf" was gaining traction.

Jordan, incidentally, had delivered his famous "I'm back" message just three weeks before the Masters, launching the second chapter of his NBA career after 18 months in retirement.

Today, Jordan and Woods are thought to be America's two wealthiest sports stars.

On his way to Augusta's second tee, back in 1995, Woods had pictured the response of a champion.

"I told myself to pound it over the bunker on the right, and I did," Woods wrote in Unprecedented. "I had a cocky walk off that tee, because I'd done what I wanted to do."

Woods made birdie. Olazabal gasped at his gargantuan drive, later half-joking he needed binoculars to pick out Woods' tee shots. This is what the galleries craved, what they have returned time after time to enjoy.

The new kid on the block finished that week as tournament leader in average driving distance - 311.1 yards - but iron play had let him down.

'FANTASYLAND AND DISNEY WORLD WRAPPED INTO ONE'

Woods signed off his maiden Masters with a visit to Butler Cabin, where he spoke of an intention to "go all four" at Stanford. Yet he would spend just two years majoring in economics, bagging a couple more U.S. Amateur titles before turning professional.

"It’s a tough world out here," Woods said on that first Masters trip. “Right now, I’m only 19 years old and I feel it’s right for me to live it up a little bit. You’re only young once and college is such a great atmosphere and I really love it there."

He even left behind a letter of thanks to Augusta National, that began: "Please accept my sincere thanks for providing me the opportunity to experience the most wonderful week of my life. It was fantasyland and Disney World wrapped into one."

Woods added: "It is here that I left my youth and became a man."

LEAVING, ON THE LATE-NIGHT FLIGHT FROM GEORGIA

On the Monday morning after the Masters, Woods had a 9am history class. He reputedly made it there, taking a Sunday evening flight from Augusta to Atlanta and another on to San Francisco.

If he found time to read the reaction to his performance, he might have stumbled on Sports Illustrated Jaime Diaz's verdict.

"Although Tiger's excellent adventure was satisfying on many levels," Diaz wrote, "it was most important as a reconnaissance mission to lay the groundwork for many future trips to - and almost surely some victories in - Augusta."

The first Green Jacket arrived just two years later, victory snared by a then-record 12-shot margin.

And you know what? Woods made bogey at his first hole then, too.

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Story first published: Monday, April 6, 2020, 13:30 [IST]
Other articles published on Apr 6, 2020
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