Tiger Woods’s domination of the 1997 Masters was such that only the tournament within the tournament behind him was competitive. He prevailed by a dozen shots. Six separated Tom Kite, who was second, from those who tied for 17th.
Paul Stankowski will return to the galleries at Augusta National this week with memories of 25 years ago reverberating inside his head. Stankowski is an interesting case; he missed the cut on his Masters debut in 1996 and finished in a share of fifth a year later before finishing 39th in 1998. He was never to play in the Masters, which is held in Georgia, again.
Stankowski’s 1997 experience involved fine margins and one freakish moment. He was the first round leader, having posted a 68, until John Huston holed his second shot to the 18th from the middle of the 10th. “Who hits it on the 10th fairway playing 18?” he asks, still bewildered more than two decades on.
By Saturday, Stankowski sensed the chance to play alongside Woods on what would be a final round for the ages. “I had 10ft from behind the hole on 18,” the Californian, now 52, recalls. “I reckon if I make it, I’m in the last group. I miss that putt then [Costantino] Rocca comes along a group or two behind me. He has 20ft; if he misses it, I get Tiger. He made it and got to witness history. I played with Tom Kite and played like a dog, shooting two over, in front of my Ryder Cup captain. I knew my chances of making the Ryder Cup were done there. I knew I didn’t impress him. Had I needed a pick, I knew I wasn’t going to get it. That last day was a tough one for me. I was disappointed.
“I joke about how I could have altered history with that 10ft putt on Saturday. Truth be told, nothing would have changed. Tiger was destined to win and destined to be great. For my generation he is the best player who has ever lived. It was pretty cool to almost share the spotlight with him.”
Indeed, Woods triumphed while pulling away. His 54-hole advantage was nine. By the time he added a 69 to earlier rounds of 70, 66 and 65, a world far beyond golf was paying attention. This was Woods’s first Masters appearance as a professional – though he played at Augusta in 1995 and 1996 as an amateur. Bill Clinton, then president of the United States, was among those to offer immediate post-tournament congratulations.
Nick Faldo has always summed up 1997 appropriately. The defending champion partnered Woods during rounds one and two. Woods famously delivered a Thursday front half of four over par that was improved by 10 over the inward nine. “He went out in 40 then we didn’t see him for 14 years,” Faldo says. “He left us all in the dust.” Woods cited nervousness for his initial struggles. “I played shaky,” he said.
Stankowski, playing directly in front of Faldo and Woods, admits to having a chuckle to himself when seeing the latter’s early problems. “Then, quickly, we started hearing the roars.” They continued for another three days; golf had a new icon. “I was asked by the media on Saturday afternoon: ‘Is it over?’” Stankowski adds. “I said: ‘Well, if somebody gets hot tomorrow and makes five or six birdies in the first two or three holes, maybe they can catch him.’ The guy peeked out, perplexed, from behind the camera. If Tiger wasn’t there that week, it would have been a lot more exciting for the rest of the field.”
But was Woods’s subsequent greatness easy to foresee? “Even then, we still had no idea,” says Stankowski. “I predicted Tiger Woods was going to win a lot of golf tournaments. He could dominate a lot of courses with his length. But then we really started to see his mental fortitude, the mindset. He entered the property on a mission.”
Stankowski, who left the PGA Tour in 2013, now regularly plays Monday qualifiers and seeks invites to feature on the Champions Tour. This feels a far cry from chasing a Green Jacket, including in the company of Tom Watson. He won twice on the PGA Tour, once in Atlanta in the week before the 1996 Masters and finally in Hawaii in early 1997.
“I was on a really good run,” he says. “1997 was my most consistent year. I figured the sky was the limit, I was still getting better. But, not for a lack of effort, it just didn’t happen. 1998 wasn’t a very good year, things kept getting worse. I got injured at the end of 2002 and that was it for my really good golf. For me, playing on the tour was a dream. I got to do that for 20 years but my really good play came in probably less than two years. That’s just the nature of the game; how many athletes are picked out as amazing and before you know it, you’ve forgotten about them?
“When you are in the midst of good golf you don’t know how long it will last. You can have aspirations and dreams all you want but ultimately you don’t know. Right now, Scottie Scheffler is the best golfer in the world. For all intents and purposes that could last for 10 years or 10 weeks. You have no idea. I admire what Tiger and Phil Mickelson have done because it’s so hard to be the best or among the best for a long period.”
Before departing Augusta on 13 April 1997, Woods was directly asked whether he was going to be the greatest golfer the world had ever seen. “I don’t know about that,” he replied. “I do know my goal is to be the best. I know that’s a very lofty goal but I will try to accomplish it. If I do that, great, if I don’t, I tried. I expect nothing but the best for myself.” A further 14 major wins later, it is safe to say Woods delivered on early promise. And some.