Tiger Woods' mantra for 1997 Masters: 'Just don't screw up'

NEW YORK — During the first week of April in 1997, Tiger Woods beat Arnold Palmer in a tense 18-hole match, shot 59 the next day playing with Mark O’Meara, made a hole-in-one and watched the launch of the Space Shuttle Columbia.

“I thought my prep was perfect,” Woods said Monday in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY Sports during a book tour to promote the release of The 1997 Masters: My Story (Grand Central Publishing, available at tigerwoodsmasters.com). “I had won a few tournaments leading into the event. Now all of a sudden here I am prepping for the Masters and I’m already hot.

“You couldn’t have asked for a better start. It was a dream scenario.”

The following week wasn’t too shabby, either — Woods won the Masters by 12 shots in his first major as a professional, shooting 70-66-65-69 and setting 20 tournament records in the first of his four triumphs at Augusta National.

“There are a few tournaments throughout my career where I felt, ‘Just don’t screw it up,’” Woods said. “That was one of them.”

On the 20th anniversary of that watershed moment in golf, Woods pulls the head cover off his otherwise sheltered life and captures his historic march to the green jacket in a fast-paced 244 pages. With Canadian Golf Hall of Fame writer Lorne Rubenstein, Woods, 41, reflects on his journey inside and outside the ropes that culminated with a hug from his dad behind the 18th green and receiving the green jacket from Nick Faldo in Butler Cabin.

Woods, who hopes to play in next month's Masters, explains how he used a persimmon driver to hone his swing the week before the 1997 Masters and made use of Golf Channel’s video library to study Augusta National’s treacherous greens. He tees up his thoughts about the changes made to the course to combat technological advances in the game.

He also explains why he wears red on Sundays, what the Par 3 Contest meant to him, and why after he won the Masters and then the GTE Byron Nelson a month later in his next start he decided to change his swing. And how during that epic week he needed to have his meats and went to Arby’s every night.

“I wanted to take the readers back into what I saw and what I felt from shot to shot. The experiences I felt that were important, that helped me to that victory, not just throughout the week but also throughout my entire life,” Woods said. “I was only 21 at the time, but I had been through a lot, but I also didn’t know a lot. In hindsight, writing it 20 years later, it was quite interesting to remember a lot for the stuff that went on that particular week, and the buildup to it. I still get giddy talking about it because it was so important to my life.”

My strategy in 1997 was based on three factors: my length, that the course had no rough, and that it had virtually no trees that would come into play even if I missed fairways. Augusta National was effectively wide open for me.

He quickly shut the door on everyone in the field with eye-opening firepower. In the first round, Woods was paired with defending champion Faldo. After opening with a 40 on the front, Woods shot 30 on the back nine, including an eagle. He finished three shots off the lead with a 70; Faldo shot 75.

Woods carded the lowest scores the next two days. Paired with Constantino Rocca on Sunday and holding a nine-shot lead, Woods sailed through Amen Corner and birdied 11, 13 and 14 to finish with a 69 and a stunning 18 under par.

At 21, Woods became the youngest to win the Masters and broke several tournament records along the way.

While the book offers remarkable insight into each of his rounds, equally fascinating are numerous accounts of important moments in his life that shaped him as a youngster and then a man, most coming from the influential guidance of his mother, Kultida, and father, Earl, and now fueled by his two children, Sam and Charlie.

Mom was, and still is, strong and feisty. As we said in our family, my mom was the hand, and my dad was the voice. I could negotiate with him, but not with my mom. There was no middle ground with Mom.

“My dad was always the person who would plant seeds and give me encouragement but also would say things that would fester inside me that wouldn’t come to fruition for a while,” Woods said. “He was very worldly and deep in his thinking. My mom was the enforcer. My dad may have been in the Special Forces, but I was never afraid of him. My mom’s still here and I’m still deathly afraid of her. She’s a very tough, tough old lady, very demanding. She was the hand, she was the one, I love her so much, but she was tough.

“There was zero negotiation.”

There was zero joy on Woods’ first nine holes in the first round. While he would go on to devour the course, it bit him at the start. The book opens with Woods starting the Masters “with a 40 on the front nine, a two-hour clunker that tempered the massive hype leading to the first tee.”

“I was pretty ticked that I shot 40, but I was trying to get (angrier) as I was walking to 10,” Woods said. “ ... What happened to my swing? I putted well to shoot 40. Then I hit the tee shot off of 10 and I said, ‘That’s it. That’s my swing from last week.’”

I knew one thing above all as I walked to the tenth tee: My start wasn’t going to finish me. Most people would say that nobody recovers from a first-nine 40 at the Masters. I’d learn later that the media were already writing me off, even as I was making my way to the back nine.

… I was surrounded by a half-dozen or so Pinkerton security guards as I walked off the ninth green and over to the tenth tee. I could now feel everybody’s eyes on me. I was dimly aware that some were saying the tournament was already over for me. My dad’s military experience helped me here.

His dad also came to the rescue on the eve of the Masters. While Woods tapped into the notebook in his head that he filled during practice rounds at Augusta with Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Raymond Floyd, Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal, Greg Norman, Fred Couples, Nick Faldo and others, his best teachers were his parents. Woods got a putting tip from his dad that turned his week around. His father, who waged psychological wars with his son to toughen him up, was ill that week and offered his take on Woods’ woes from a bed in the rental house.

I needed help. I grabbed three balls and got into my putting posture as he lay there in bed, and asked if he saw anything. He did, and told me, “Your hands are too low. Lift them up. Get that little arch in your hands line you always do.

Woods didn’t have a three-putt all week.

Throughout the book Woods touches on race and how the color of his skin and the prejudice he experienced shaped him.

At the 1995 U.S. Open, I referred to myself as a Cablinasian, a made-up word that includes my Caucasian, black, and Asian heritage. I never thought it was right or fair to think of me only as an African-American, and I never will. But I learned that to have one drop of black blood in you in America meant that you were considered an African-American.

“I didn’t have it anywhere near as difficult as my father had it; this was before the Civil Rights movement … all the things he had to endure,” Woods said. “I never had to endure them at that level. Was is it tough at times? Yeah. There were some tough moments I had to endure, when I was in a sport where I was a minority, and often times the only one.

“My dad had to endure a lot of that stuff, and my mother, all the things she had to endure being an immigrant from Thailand. We always felt it was a team, a family, we had to endure some tough moments together. That is part of my life. It’s part of being a minority in golf.”

The last of Woods’ 270 strokes that week came from four feet with the scoring record jointly held by Nicklaus and Floyd on the line. Nine years prior Woods was inspired as he watched Nicklaus win the 1986 Masters at 46. Now he had a chance to break the Golden Bear’s record.

“I had this double-breaking putt, left to right, hit it too hard through my line,” Woods said. “On that next putt I was thinking ‘I haven’t had a three-putt all week, now I have the record in hand and I’m about to lose it on a three-putt. Here we go. Come on. Focus on what you need to do.’

“So I focused and I hit the putt, center cut.”

Just like his entire week, a perfect putt. It was a fitting ending. More than 43 million watched his victory on TV, including President Clinton, who called to congratulate Woods.

I lived in ’97 for that moment when I had to perform. Maybe I don’t live as much for that now, but I still crave competing. But I also realize that, physically, I can’t necessarily do what I want to do. And I know I’ll miss it when I’m done playing tournament golf. Still, I love being on my own on the range and going out in the evening to play a few holes – just me, the golf ball, and the course. Compete, though, remains my favorite word, and probably always will. My parents told me it was okay for me to fail, as long as I gave it everything I had. I have given everything I have.

At the 18th hole, Tiger Woods acknowledges the gallery before winning the 1997 Masters. (Photo: PORTER BINKS, USA TODAY)

Tiger Woods hopes to play in the Masters: 'I need to get back physically'

Tiger Woods said he is "trying every day to get back and play'' the Masters in two weeks despite back issues that forced him out of his last tournament in February.

Speaking publicly Monday for the first time since withdrawing from the Omega Dubai Desert Classic on Feb. 3, Woods told Michael Strahan on "Good Morning America," when asked if he will play in the first major of the year: "I hope so. I'm trying. I'm trying every day to get back and play.

"I love that event. It's meant so much to me in my life. It's the first major I ever played back in '95. It has so much history and meaning to me that I'd love to get back.''

Woods was in New York to promote his new book, "The 1997 Masters: My Story.''

Woods won the first of 14 major championships 20 years ago at Augusta National by a record 12 shots at age 21.

Now 41, Woods has spent much of the past three years trying to overcome back problems that have resulted in three surgeries.

A winner of 79 PGA Tour events, including five in 2013, Woods had his first surgery three years ago, forcing him to miss the Masters in 2014 for the first time. If he is unable to play when the tournament begins April 6, Woods would miss the Masters for the third time in four years.

Woods did say in an interview with USA Today that he will attend the Masters Champions Dinner on April 4, whether he can play in the event or not.

Since withdrawing from the event in Dubai, where he shot a first-round 77, Woods has also pulled out of three events he expected to play: the Genesis Open, the Honda Classic and the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

"The mind is sharp; I just need to get the body willing to do it,'' he said. "That's the hard part. Getting the prep time. I haven't been able to get much prep time in. Train like I used to. Practice like I used to. So it's been hard.''

In an interview later Monday with ESPN's Scott Van Pelt, Woods said to be able to play at Augusta, he's "got to get stronger. I've got to get more reps under my belt. I need to get more practice time. I need to get out there on the golf course. I've got a lot of work to do.

"I can do it. But I need more time. I need to work on it, and that's going to be the hard part -- going out there and feeling that I can be prepared to win."

Asked how much thought he has given to giving up tournament golf, Woods told Van Pelt, "A lot, I think, the last couple years. Not being able to play a full schedule and not being able to play and practice at a high level like I used to. And then, not being able to participate with my kids' lives. That has probably been the most difficult.

"My No. 1 priority is to make sure I am able to do things with them, and to participate in golf at its highest level is just not the priority it used to be. That's just the way it is."

Woods has not appeared publicly since the Dubai withdrawal. He attended no activities at the Genesis Open, where his foundation is the beneficiary.

On Saturday, Woods' agent, Mark Steinberg, issued a statement to the Golf Channel in which he refuted a report which said the golfer was unlikely to play the Masters.

"We're not in a situation to even talk about playing in the Masters right now,'' Steinberg said in the statement. "He's gotten treatments and is progressing and hoping he can do it. There's not been a decision one way or the other. I couldn't give you a fair assessment, but to say it's doubtful is an absolutely inaccurate statement.''

Woods is currently 100-1 to win the Masters at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.

As a past champion of the Masters, Woods is invited to participate for life. There is no commitment deadline as there would be on the PGA Tour, so he could simply show up, register and play.

Woods acknowledges that he has an advantage with his knowledge of Augusta National. He has played the tournament 20 times, 18 as a pro, and has 78 official rounds in tournament play. The last came in 2015 when he tied for 17th.

"Because I know how to prepare for it, and I know the golf course, I know where to miss it, I know where to play from, I know where the advantages are," he said, according to USA Today. "It's almost like cramming for a final. I know the golf course, I know the subject, I know the material. Now I just need to go out there and do it. That makes a big difference, whether or not I would come back and play a U.S. Open or a British Open or a PGA. It's so much easier coming back for this particular event because I know the golf course."

Tiger Woods: My Kids With Elin Nordegren 'Dominate My Life'

Golf has taken a backseat since Tiger Woods became a dad. The famed athlete opened up about his daughter Sam, 9, and son Charlie, 7, whom he shares with ex-wife, Elin Nordegren, during a Good Morning America interview to promote his new memoir about his historic 1997 Masters win on Monday, March 20. Watch the video above!

"My priorities have changed a lot," he told Michael Strahan when asked if he would play in the Masters this year. "My kids now dominate my life and I think that's a good thing."

Woods, who resides in Jupiter, Florida, said that his own dad, Earl Woods, has influenced how he raises his children.

"My dad would always make sure when we talked he never sat above me. He always made sure he was eye level and so he was talking to me and not down to me," he said on Monday. "I do the same thing with my kids … It's amazing the bond that you can build that way."

The athlete and Nordegren, 37, ended their six-year marriage in 2010, following Woods' infamous cheating scandal. He opened up about their current relationship during The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in October 2016.

"She's been one of my best friends, and I've talked to her about so many different things and she does the same thing with me back and forth," he said at the time. "We communicate so much better now, it's incredible. I wish we would have done that earlier on, but it's been incredible to have a best friend like that."

Woods isn't done with golf just yet, though. He hopes to play at The Masters next month. "I know that the mind is sharp, I just need to get the body willing to do it. That's the hard part is getting the prep time in," he told Strahan, 45. "I'm trying. I’m trying everything I can do to be able to get back and play. I love that event. It's meant so much to me in my life."

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