Masters 2021: Twenty years ago, Tiger Woods faced more pressure than any golfer in history

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“When do you start thinking about Augusta?”

Well, that didn’t take long. The date is January 10, 2001, and Tiger Woods, coming off a historic season in which he won nine times and captured the year’s final three majors, already is being asked about the Masters. Which doesn’t begin until April 5. It’s 86 days away.

Woods is sitting in a lounge chair in a makeshift interview room beneath the clubhouse at the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort in Maui, where he is the defending champion of the winner’s only Mercedes Championships. Because of him the field isn’t large. He has taken up nine spots.

But not many members of the media want to talk about his playoff victory over Ernie Els. The story is the Masters and the challenge ahead of him at Augusta National Golf Club. The story has been the Masters since August when Woods defeated Bob May in a three-hole playoff to successfully defend his PGA Championship title at Valhalla Golf Club near Louisville, Ky. It enabled Woods to run the tables in the U.S. Open, the Open Championship and the PGA to wrap up the 2000 majors campaign.

Only Ben Hogan in 1953 previously had won three professional majors in a calendar year. Only one other player had held three of the four modern major championship trophies at one time, when Jack Nicklaus won the 1971 PGA Championship (played in February that year) and the 1972 Masters and U.S. Open.

But no one ever had won four professional majors in a row. And it had been 70 years and change since Bob Jones registered the only recognized Grand Slam, sweeping the Open and Amateur titles of the U.S. and Britain in 1930.

Nicklaus said that he’d start thinking about the Masters as soon as the calendar turned to January. But the Golden Bear never had to think about winning the Masters as a part of a larger, unprecedented, crazy-to-even-contemplate accomplishment.

Woods responded to the inevitable query by saying he wouldn’t give the Masters much thought until he reached the Florida swing. What he meant was that he wouldn’t think about it in earnest until then.

“Have I been thinking about it? Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it,” he finally admitted. “I’ve been thinking about some of the shots I might need. . . .More than anything, going into Augusta, I think it’s always beneficial that you’re playing well, that you feel like your practices are well, your tournament performances going in there, you’ve put yourself in contention to win.”

The observation would prove prescient as the early months of 2001 unfolded.

What ensued next was perhaps less predictable, but also revealing. The discussion veered to the question: what exactly was Woods on the verge of accomplishing? Was it the Grand Slam? Or something else? Woods allowed that the Grand Slam, as commonly identified, is completed in one year. Martina Navratilova completed a sweep of tennis’ four big events in succession in 1983-84. It was not known as a Grand Slam, which Steffi Graf achieved in 1988. (And on the men’s side, completed by Don Budge in 1934 and Rod Laver twice, in 1962 and ’69.) But Tiger had a salient point at the ready. He’d had time to ponder it.

Q: There’s going to be a debate at Augusta, if you should win, whether that’s a Grand Slam or whether it has to be done in calendar year. … If you were to win Augusta this year, is that a Grand Slam?

TIGER WOODS: Let me ask you this. Do I hold all four?

TIGER WOODS: Then there’s the answer.

Q: Does it have to be in a calendar year?

TIGER WOODS: I [would] hold all four at the same time.

Q: You know Martina Navratilova did that, and they wouldn’t count it in tennis as a Grand Slam.

TIGER WOODS: Hey, everybody has an opinion.

Q: First you have to win it. Then will you let us argue it?

TIGER WOODS: You can do whatever you want as soon as I win.

After beating MacDonald Smith by two strokes in the U.S. Open at Interlachen for his third major title of 1930, Bob Jones had to wait 77 days until the final leg of his Slam, the U.S. Amateur at Merion, began. Long time to wait. To stew. To lose your game or confidence. A long time to not be sick or injured. And a long time to allow another player to prepare, maybe find his game or his confidence and be a little bit better.

When Tiger Woods holed out for that difficult playoff victory on Sunday, Aug. 20, 2000, in the 82nd PGA Championship, he faced an interminable wait of 228 days until the start of the 65th Masters.

Like Nicklaus, Woods would begin preparing for the challenge of Augusta in earnest with the arrival of the new year. He had 85 days to get ready for the grandest quest in golf’s modern era. The following recounts that journey.

Jan. 11-14: Mercedes Championships 70-73-68-69-280 (T-8)

As the defending champion, and after having won 16 of his last 30 tour starts, Woods was the heavy favorite in the field of 33 players in Hawaii. He wasn’t exactly coming in fresh. He competed steadily throughout the fall and played into mid-December with appearances at his own Williams World Challenge and the EMC World Cup in Argentina, where he teamed with David Duval. (Perhaps predictably, they won.)

Paired with Paul Azinger, Woods opened with a 70. No problem. He shot 71 in the first round the year before. The problem was a second-round 73 that left him nine strokes behind Els. The only positive note was extending his streak to 49 of rounds at par or better. Tiger went negative. “It can’t get much worse,” he said after three-putting 18. “I’m hitting terrible. I’m chipping terrible. And I’m putting terrible.”

It didn’t get much better, either. “Just a little off this week,” he said after a decent weekend that enabled him to finish in the top-10 for the 18th time in his last 21 starts but six shots behind winner Jim Furyk.

The Masters begins in 81 days.

Jan. 25-28: Phoenix Open 65-73-68-65-271 (T-5)

Tiger opened strong, trailing a trio of players by a stroke, but the end of his round was marred by a teenager throwing an orange onto the ninth green just as Woods was getting ready to putt. He missed the birdie try, and when he shot 73 in the second round, he fell 13 strokes behind Mark Calcavecchia. Equally frustrating, his streak of par or better rounds on tour ended at 52 dating to the Byron Nelson Classic the previous May.

“I’ll just start another one,” he said, and he followed through by going nine under the final two rounds, though it didn’t much matter, because Calcavecchia went bonkers and finished at 28-under 256.

“I’m not playing badly,” said Woods, continuing to struggle on the greens. “I just need some of those putts that lipped out to go in.”

The Masters is 67 days away.

Feb. 1-4: AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am 66-73-69-72-280 (T-13)

Uh, oh. Tiger’s winless streak in official events reaches an unthinkable six dating to October at the Disney Classic, but that wasn’t the worst development at the famed seaside course where he orchestrated so much magic the year prior by winning twice, including the Slam starter, that record-wrecking 15-stroke victory in the 100th U.S. Open.

On Wednesday, Woods – and all of golf – got a scare when Tiger stepped on the ankle of an aggressive autograph seeker and hyperextended his left knee. Initially, he feared he might have to withdraw. He was fortunate to escape a more serious injury.

He answered the bell on Thursday, however, and opened with an encouraging six-under 66 at Spyglass Hill. “There’s a difference between playing injured and playing hurt,” he said. “If the injury were significant, I would not have played.”

The best that could be said for the rest of the week is that he survived The Battle of Wounded Knee. Even getting a trophy for winning the team competition with his friend Jerry Chang wasn’t fully satisfying; they had to share the title with Phil Mickelson and musician Kenny G. Davis Love III, with a sterling 63, rallied for the individual title.

A closing 72, marred by reports of a few club slams and a watery tee shot at the par-3 17th, left Woods outside the top-10 (T-13) for the first time since winning the Canadian Open in September. He consented to one TV interview, lamented his poor putting, and departed.

The Masters begins in 60 days.

Feb. 8-11: Buick Invitational 70-67-67-67-271 (fourth)

Woods had reason to be motivated returning to Torrey Pines. Not only had Mickelson beaten him by four strokes the year before to end his six-tournament winning streak, but in the run-up, Lefty couldn’t stifle a jab at his rival. “The guy can take a beating and come back for more,” he quipped when Woods committed to the San Diego stop.

If that wasn’t enough, Tiger began answering to slump questions because of his PGA Tour drought – though he had won the European Tour’s Johnnie Walker Classic in November. “It’s not like I’m missing cuts,” he pointed out. “My worst finish is 13th. That’s terrible, isn’t it?”

Tiger usually responds to these kinds of provocations with scoring haymakers, but a sloppy opening 70 on the relatively easier North Course derailed his hopes of an “I-will-show you” response, even with three straight 67s on the South Course. Woods ended up a dyspeptic fourth, two strokes out of the three-man playoff eventually won by … Mickelson. Ouch.

No issues with the knee, though.

It is now 53 days until the start of the Masters.

Feb. 22-25: Nissan Open 71-68-69-71-279 (T-13)

Already in the midst of his longest winless streak on the PGA Tour since he won the 1999 Memorial, Woods hoped to break through at Riviera Country Club, where he made his tour debut at 16 years old. The “S-word” was getting thrown around some more. A Los Angeles Times headline blared, “When will Woods win?”

“It’s only four tournaments. That’s not a slump,” he shrugged, obviously counting his World Cup win with Duval to end 2000. “If I went four years, that’s a slump.”

Backing up his assertion was the fact that his stroke average was exactly the same as a year ago – 68.88. But two ominous signals loomed: driver and putter misbehavior. He came into the week ranked 91st on the tour in driving accuracy, and 126th in putting. In 2000, Woods ranked second in putting.

And the putting woes continued in an opening 71 as he didn’t make a putt over four feet. It didn’t help that his approaches gave him looks that required binoculars, so he went straight to the driving range. He flirted with the cutline before two birdies and an eagle got him in contention through 36 holes. (He then went on Larry King Live that evening.)

Amid chilly and rainy weather, Woods stalled the final 36 holes and settled for another T-13 finish, though he was only three shots out of a massive six-man playoff won by Robert Allenby. He hit only 40 greens in regulation. “Not very good,” was his blunt assessment.

The Masters begins in 39 days.

March 8-11: Dubai Desert Classic 64-64-69-72-268 (T-2)

Jet-lagged after 25 hours of travel and barely on speaking terms with his putter, Woods wasn’t in the greatest mood when he touched down in the United Arab Emirates for the European Tour event for which he received, according to reports, a $2 million appearance fee. It didn’t help that the slump whispers followed him across 11 time zones. “They don’t understand the game if they think it’s a slump,” he said.

His mood brightened when he sampled the greens on the Majlis Course. “It’s nice to be able to putt on greens that roll,” he said. Little wonder, then, that Woods got that Tiger circa 2000 strut going when he opened 64-64 and broke the 36-hole tournament record.

Everyone liked the greens, though (the cut was a record three under par), and Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn, who had a home in Dubai, would not back down, trailing golf’s best front-runner by a stroke entering the final round. They were tied heading to the par-5 18th hole when the world’s No. 1 golfer sprayed his drive right behind low-lying trees. He punched across the fairway for his second and then found a lake from 150 yards with a 9-iron. A double bogey dropped him into a tie for second with Padraig Harrington at 20 under par.

The loss was just his fourth after holding the 54-hole lead.

“I think this just goes to show how strong the European Tour is becoming. Lee [Westwood] has beaten him head to head, Darren [Clarke] has beaten him head to head, and now I’ve done it,” said Bjorn, who didn’t just pour salt in the wound but ground it in with his spikes. “The intimidation is disappearing.”

The Masters now is less than a month away, just 25 days.

March 15-18: Bay Hill Invitational 71-67-66-69-273 (Win)

“Did it sting? Oh, yes, it did,” Woods said of his Dubai disaster as he met the media at Bay Hill Club in Orlando, where he was defending his third 2000 title. “When you have a chance of winning and don’t win, it doesn’t feel good. But the great thing is that I really started to play well. I putted well. I felt like my game was progressing.”

It was a tough interview, the direction of which Woods admitted was “annoying.” But he came ready. “I went over my stats the other day, and I’m 75-under this year through six tournaments. That’s not bad. … The only problem is I just haven’t got the right breaks at the right time, and you need to have that in order to win.”

But maybe, just maybe, he also was slightly distracted by some kind of impending challenge.

“Yeah, I’ve been working on stuff for Augusta since the beginning of the year,” he admitted. “I knew some of the changes they made to the golf course and some of the things we’re going to have to … be aware of. So I’ve been trying to get ready for that.”

Woods was working on a swell first round at Bay Hill until he dumped a wedge into the water on his penultimate hole, the par-4 eighth, and suffered a triple bogey that left him with a 1-under 71 – and steaming mad. “I played like a dog,” was his only comment.

But he played like Tiger the rest of the way. By Saturday night, he was out front by a stroke over Sergio Garcia, his second 54-hole lead in as many weeks, but his first on the PGA Tour in his last 10 starts. And this time he closed the deal, although Mickelson made him work by firing a 66. Down a stroke with three to play, Woods birdied the par-5 16th and then sank a 15-foot birdie putt on 18 for his 25th tour title. Though he noted that his final-round 69 wasn’t pretty, especially off the tee, it got the job done.

“Obviously, I need to start hitting the ball and controlling my trajectory a little bit better. Going into Augusta, that’s what you have to do.”

The first round of the Masters is in a mere 18 days.

March 22-26: The Players Championship 72-69-66-67-274 (Win)

Perhaps often overlooked in his bid for the Slam is the fact that it was actually the Slam-plus.

Woods added the so-called “fifth major” to his resume, winning the first of his two titles in the tour’s flagship event at TPC Sawgrass, highlighted by his snaking 60-foot “better than most” putt on the island par-3 17th green to punctuate a six-under 66 on Saturday. If you don’t know what we’re talking about, you weren’t paying attention during this year’s Players coverage. Replays of the putt received more airtime than the Kardashians.

A weather-delayed final-round 67, completed on Monday, was good enough to beat Vijay Singh by one stroke. Right on time he was rounding into form and gaining confidence. “I feel I’m headed in the right direction,” he said, adding that he was “pleased.” His peers probably weren’t.

Tiger’s odds for winning the 65th Masters dropped to a mere +150, tied for the lowest of his career (along with the 2000 Open Championship). For 217 days now, the prospect of realizing one of the grandest achievements in golf, if not all of sports, has been weighing on him.

The Masters would begin in 11 days. History would be made in 14. The Tiger Slam.

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