AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Around the time Tiger Woods made the turn yesterday afternoon at Augusta National, the 61st Masters ceased being a golf tournament and started becoming a historic event. It wasn't merely what Woods had done to the field and the course, destroying both with an eerie calm and a red-hot putter.
It was what Woods was about to do to the legacy of the tournament, the club and the sport.
Barring an unforeseen collapse here this afternoon, Woods, 21, will become the first black player to win the Masters or any of golf's Grand Slam events, as well as the youngest champion here. That he will do it in his first major championship as a pro, the way he will do it, and where he will do it, is also part of his amazing saga.
With a 7-under-par 65 in the third round for a total of 15-under 201, Woods will take the Masters' largest lead ever into the final round. Woods leads Costantino Rocca of Italy by nine shots and Paul Stankowski by 10. Former two-time champion Tom Watson and former U.S. Open champion Tom Kite are 11 shots behind.
The anticipated victory by Woods would be his fourth on the PGA Tour since turning pro last summer and his second this year. It would come 22 years after Lee Elder became the first black player to qualify for the Masters and six after the club invited in its first black member. Elder, who went on play six times in a stretch of seven years, is expected to be here today for what will be one of golf's transcending moments.
Even Woods has a sense of what he is about to accomplish -- and he isn't just talking about the possibility of breaking Jack Nicklaus' and Ray Floyd's tournament record of 17-under par 271. Nicklaus set it in 1965 and Floyd equaled it in 1976. Just as Woods is a student of the game, watching old tapes of former champions at work, Woods is also aware of the social significance his victory would have.
"It means a lot, I guess for a number of reasons," Woods said. "It means a lot because I would have won. I would have become the youngest ever to win. But I think more importantly, in my estimation, it's going to open up a lot of doors, a lot of opportunities and draw a lot of people into golf who never thought of playing the game. And, I think on this kind of stage, I think it's going to do a lot for the game as far as minority golf is concerned."
Charlie Sifford, one of those who never was able to play in the Masters, said in a statement released by the PGA Tour, "It would make my dream come true for him to win Sunday. I tried so hard for the opportunity to play there. I am not angry about it. The people of Augusta had their rules and I can respect that. I stood up for what was right and I am not ashamed of it. I would do the same thing over again."
Woods is doing things to a course that no player -- black or white, American or foreign-born -- has done before. His last two rounds of 13-under 131 are the best consecutive middle two rounds ever played. Since starting with a 4-over 40 on the front Thursday, Woods has played the past 45 holes in 19-under.
After obliterating the course's fabled back nine on the first two days, Woods did nearly the same thing to the front nine yesterday. The side on which he struggled in the opening round fell victim to Woods' incredible putting and toughness. He played the front in 32, with four birdies, no bogeys and two long putts to save par. He had three more birdies on the back, finishing the round with one after hitting a sand wedge to within a foot on the final hole.
With the biggest third-round lead in Masters history -- one shot better than Floyd had in 1976 -- it doesn't seem that Woods will have the problems that last year hampered Greg Norman, who self-destructed and lost a Masters record six-shot lead. It seems more likely that Woods will beat the record margin of victory set by Nicklaus in 1965.
"There is no chance. This is different [than last year]," said Colin Montgomerie of Scotland, who started the round three shots behind in second place and, after playing with Woods, finds himself 12 shots behind after a 2-over 74. "The difference is that Nick Faldo's not lying second for a start. And Greg Norman is not Tiger Woods. When you add it all together, he's nine shots clear. And I'm sure that will be higher tomorrow."
Considering the $60 million worth of endorsement deals he signed upon turning pro, the $486,000 first prize he will earn seems almost insignificant compared to everything else Woods will get with the victory, including a lifetime invitation to the Masters. He would also become the youngest winner of a major championship since Gene Sarazen won the 1922 PGA Championship at 20.
While others have conceded defeat, Woods is not quite ready to celebrate his victory.
"It's going to be a tough day tomorrow, thinking about all the things that could happen [with a victory]," he said. "But I think I'm going to draw on my experience. I'm going to draw upon Thailand as part of my experience to handle tomorrow. I had a huge lead going into the last day, and I think I had one of my best rounds I shot in a long time and won by 10."
Asked whether he was surprised at how well he was playing, Woods smiled.
"If I didn't perform the way I performed last week at home shooting 59 and a couple of other good rounds -- I came in playing really well," said Woods, alluding to a friendly money match against fellow pro Mark O'Meara at their home club in Florida. "It didn't show my first nine holes on Thursday, but it finally clicked in and I'm playing basically the way I've been playing all last week at home."
What surprised Woods was that nobody challenged him yesterday. Montgomerie bogeyed three of the first eight holes, including both par-5s, to fall out of contention. Rocca started four shots behind, but after a birdie on the par-5 second lost five shots to par and eight to Woods before playing the final eight holes in 5-under. Kite had the second-best round of the day, a 6-under 66, after morning rains softened the greens but lengthened the course.
"I told my pop before I left that somebody was going to make a run and probably shoot 66 at the worst because the greens are soft," Woods said.
And what did Earl Woods tell his famous son?
"Kick some butt," he said. "But that's what my father always tells me."
And that's what Tiger Woods has done for most of his career and most of this year's Masters.
A career that will add to its growing legend, a tournament that will become even more of a historic event today.
The best third rounds in Masters history:
Score, Golfer, Year
63*, Nick Price, '86
64, Jack Nicklaus, '65
65, Tiger Woods, '97
65, P. Mickelson, '95
65, Hubert Green, '78
65, Johnny Miller, '75
65, Dow Finsterwald, '62
* -- Course record
The largest 54-hole leads in Masters history, with three-round totals, what the leader shot in his final round and his winning margin:
Golfer, Year, 54-hole Lead, Total, Final round, Won by
Tiger Woods, 1997, 9, 201 -- --
Ray Floyd, 1976, 8, 201, 70, 8
Seve Ballesteros, 1980, 7, 203, 72, 4
Greg Norman*, 1996, 6, 203, 78, Lost
Jack Nicklaus, 1965, 5, 202, 69, 9
* -- Lost to Nick Faldo by five shots.
Par out, 454, 343, 454, 36
Woods, 444, 333, 344, 32
Rocca, 446, 453, 364, 39
Stankowski, 464, 433, 444, 36
Par in, 443, 545, 344, 3672
Woods, 433, 544, 343, 3365
Rocca, 532, 335, 343, 3170
Stankowski, 443, 335, 344, 3369
Tiger Woods 70-66-65-201
and selected followers
C. Rocca 71-69-70-210
P. Stankowski 68-74-69-211
Tom Watson 75-68-69-212
Tom Kite 77-69-66-212
Jeff Sluman 74-67-72-213
C. Montgomerie 72-67-74-213
Ernie Els 73-70-71-214
Fred Couples 72-69-73-214
J.M. Olazabal 71-70-74-215
Fred Funk 73-74-69-216
Nick Price 71-71-75217
Tom Lehman 73-76-69218
Jack Nicklaus 77-70-74-221
Larry Mize 79-69-74-222
Ben Crenshaw 75-73-74-222
Pub Date: 4/13/97