Golf is the ultimate game of self-centeredness. Case in point: While the rest of the world remembers the 1997 Masters for Tiger Woods’ breakout victory, for me the tournament will always be associated with my first—and only—course record.
Sure, I remember Tiger’s epic performance. I walked nearly the entire way with him, from his front-nine 40 on Thursday to his back-nine 30 to his near-flawless play on Friday and Saturday to his triumphant coronation on Sunday. I remember Woods’ drive on the 17th hole in the final round—with a steel-shaft, steel-head driver, his tee shot wound up on the crosswalk more than 320 uphill yards off the tee, surprising the marshals who had let down the ropes to let people cross. As the ball landed and began rolling toward the trampled crosswalk, the crowd amassed along the fairways began to cheer, crescendo-ing in a roar as it reached the chalked-off area. It was at that moment that I realized that we were entering a new era of golf.
On Saturday, one of the thousands of spectators watching Tiger at Amen Corner was Dan Forsman, who had missed the cut and who himself had nearly won the Masters in 1993. Most players who had missed the cut had long since booked flights home. (This was before most of them could afford to fly privately.) The sight of a player fighting the crowds to watch another competing was as rare as a double eagle.
“I wouldn’t have missed this,” he said. “This is history in the making.”
Forsman’s view was completely different from the one pervading the tour at the time. I was working for another publication at the time, and I remember an off-site meeting at which we convened several high-profile personalities in the golf industry, among them Jerry Pate and USGA Executive Director David Fay, for a panel discussion.
It was just after the Masters, so it was no surprise that much of the discussion was about Woods. I don’t remember the exact words Pate used, but the sentiment went something like: Sure, Tiger is a great player, but there have been other great young players like Hal Sutton, Scott Verplank, Phil Mickelson—the next Nicklauses, if you will. I forget whether Pate included himself in the group—he had won the 1976 U.S. Open as a 22-year-old for his first victory and certainly could have—but his point was this: There was nothing truly special about Tiger, and everybody needed to calm down because we were blowing his early accomplishments out of proportion.
Whether this attitude was born out of denial or delusion, I couldn’t say. But it’s safe to say that 11 years later, that sense has been shattered.
Tiger’s accomplishment out of the way, let’s move onto mine. Early Monday morning, I left Augusta for a morning round at TPC Sugarloaf, which had taken advantage of the schedule to plan its opening-day festivities for that afternoon.
But a group of us had afternoon flights and arranged to tee off ahead of the masses. We would be the first foursome ever to officially tee off at the course.
As it happened, joining me for that round were three sportswriting legends: Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Dave Anderson of the New York Times, former Time Magazine senior writer and Washington Post columnist Tom Callahan, and Dave Kindred, columnist for, among other, the Washington Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Sporting News. In golf terms, I was the last man in a foursome consisting of Tiger, Tom Watson and Gary Player.
On the range, there was not a single divot; there wasn’t a single scuff on any practice ball. We did not see another golfer during our round on the Greg Norman layout northeast of Atlanta. It was a hilly site, and Norman built some outstanding holes, including the driveable 310-yard 13th and the dramatic 544-yard 18th.
Unfortunately, my esteemed playing partners’ golf games weren’t quite up to the level of their writing ability. Of course, it probably didn’t help that I kept pestering them for stories from their travels and experiences. I didn’t say much during the round, but I learned a lot about the craft of writing. Honestly, other than the holes described above, I don’t remember much about the course, other than thinking that it was uncommonly good. But it may have been the most memorable, most educational round of my life.
When we finished, we added up the scores and mine was the lowest, which of course gave me the course record, one that probably held up until the next group finished hours later.
So the day after Tiger had one of his finest moments in golf, I had mine. Amazingly, I’m not the only one who remembers it. Every time I see Anderson, he reminds me of it. And if somebody walks up to us, he is quick to point out: “Hey, this guy had the course record at Sugarloaf.”
Sure, but every time I sit down to write, I am chasing Anderson’s—and Callahan’s and Kindred’s—course records with words.