It’s May 6th, 2019, in the White House Rose Garden in Washington, DC; and a ceremony is about to begin.
The guest of honor today is not a senator or a statesman; he’s a world-class athlete: Eldrick Woods, or as he’s more commonly known, “Tiger”. Tiger stands just a few feet away from the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, who smiles for the cameras and addresses the crowd of reporters and government officials.
"TRUMP: Thank you very much please…"
Trump gestures to the crowd to be seated…
"TRUMP: Today, it’s my privilege to award our nation's highest civilian honor to one of the greatest athletes in the history of sports. Tiger Woods. Tiger, congratulations on receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom."
About a month ago, Tiger won his fifth Masters tournament, his first major win in over a decade. After four back surgeries and four knee surgeries, many people felt Tiger’s career was over. But he proved his doubters wrong.
Now, as President Trump continues his speech, Tiger hardly reacts. He doesn’t smile. He stands there, silent and stoic.
"TRUMP: Tiger, we are inspired by everything you have become and attained. The job you have done is incredible. Your spectacular achievements on the golf course, your triumph over physical adversity, and your relentless will to win, win, win."
After finishing his speech, Trump calls forward a military aide to read the citation for Tiger’s medal.
"AIDE: The United States is now proud to honor Tiger Woods whose tenacity, willpower, and unyielding Drive inspire us all…"
Trump drapes the medal around Tiger’s neck. And finally, Tiger’s stone face curves into a smile as he holds back tears and takes the podium.
"TIGER: Thank You, Mr. President. Mrs. Trump. (applause) I just want to say this has been an unbelievable experience."
Tiger seems happy, but there’s no doubt he wishes his father could be here to see this day. He’s missed the man who coached him and made him a golf legend.
Long before Tiger Woods rose to the top of the sport, he was a child prodigy with a dedicated father who was determined to prove to the world that his son had the potential for greatness. More than two decades before he received this Presidential Medal of Freedom, the moment that would solidify Tiger’s reputation, and make his father’s dream a reality, happened when Tiger won his first Master’s Tournament on April 13th, 1997.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is April 13th: Tiger Woods Wins the 1997 Masters.
Act One: Tiger in Training
It’s 1981 in Orange County, California. Earl Woods sits on the couch with his wife and their five-year-old son, Tiger. Tonight, they’re gathered around the television set because Tiger is going to appear on a reality show called “That’s Incredible!”.
But this is not Tiger’s first time on TV. He was just two years old when he showed off his athletic prowess in front of the celebrity golf fanatic Bob Hope on “The Mike Douglas” show. And since then, his golf game has only gotten better.
After a commercial break, the words “That’s Incredible!” splash across the screen, and then Tiger appears, standing shyly in front of the show’s host, Fran Tarkenton.
"Fran: This is Eldrick ‘Tiger’ Woods, and Eldrick is an accomplished golfer. He wins tournaments on a regular basis and has shot close to par on 18-hole courses. Incredibly, Tiger here is only 5 years old."
Earl swells with pride as he watches footage of his son driving and putting with the skill of players ten times his age. Earl has worked hard to teach Tiger the fundamentals of the great game of golf. But he’s also worked hard to get Tiger in front of the media early and often. For now, Tiger’s skills as a child golfer are a novelty. But Earl is confident that one day, Tiger will be the greatest golfer to ever play the game.
Over a decade later, in August of 1993, a seventeen year old Tiger Woods competes in the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship in Portland, Oregon. On the last day of the tournament, Tiger strides across the course on his way to the 17th hole.
He’s won this tournament before - twice in fact - but today, he’s trailing by two strokes with only two holes left to go. To many watching in the crowd, it’s surprising to see this rising star athlete trailing behind. And for Tiger, it’s unacceptable.
Still, this is the exact sort of situation he and his father have been training for. Above all else, his father emphasizes mental toughness as the key to finding triumph in the face of adversity. So Tiger does not give in to frustration. Instead, he stages a comeback.
On the 17th and then the 18th hole, Tiger overcomes his two stroke deficit and forces his opponent into extra rounds. In the end, Tiger walks away with a historic victory that makes him the first person to win the U.S. Amateur Championship three times. But Tiger has made history before. And the young teenager is just getting started.
Three years later, in November 1996, Tiger’s father, Earl Woods, steps up to the podium to address a crowd at the Fred Haskins Dinner in Pine Mountain, Georgia. His son is about to receive an award for being the top collegiate golf player in the country.
Earl fights back tears and says "Please forgive me... but sometimes I get very emotional when I talk about my son. My heart fills with so much joy when I realize this young man is going to be able to help so many people. He will transcend this game…”
It's clear that to Earl, his son is not just an extraordinary athlete. He is an extraordinary human with the potential to change the world. This has always been Earl’s belief, and as Tiger continues to shatter records and attract more and more media attention, Earl has little reason to doubt his conviction.
Just a couple months ago, Tiger announced he was turning pro. And almost immediately, Nike and Titleist gave him more than $60 million dollars to sign endorsement deals. Soon after, Sports Illustrated put Tiger on their magazine cover naming him “Sportsman of the Year”. It’s an award usually reserved for athletes with decades of experience.
Still, the record-setting money and the magazine covers are only a small part of the vision that Earl has for his son; and the accolades and championships Tiger has won so far are only a fraction of what he will go on to achieve. In the end, Earl’s dream will come to fruition, and Tiger will earn a reputation for being the Greatest of All Time.
Act Two: An Unbelievable Comeback (again)
It’s the evening of April 9th, 1997 in Augusta, Georgia. Tiger Woods is nervous because tomorrow is the opening day of the Masters Tournament.
The Masters is the first major golf competition of the year, and it’s the only tournament that always takes place at the same location - the Augusta National Golf Club, one of the most prestigious in the world. But Augusta also has a difficult history. Until just seven years ago, black golfers were barred from joining the club.
As a multi-racial person, Tiger has seen his fair share of discrimination. He’s one-quarter Thai, one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Caucasian, one-eighth African American, and one-eighth Native American. Tiger knows what his participation in this tournament means to many people of color watching at home.
As one reporter said to Tiger, “Golf’s often seen as an upper-class White game.” The reporter then asked what it would mean if Tiger became the next Jack Nicklaus, the most famous golfer of all time. Tiger responded, “Since I’m Black, I may be… bigger than Jack Nicklaus… to the [Black Community]… I might be like a Michael Jordan…”. And he could be if he wins. Tiger knows he’s not the first person of color to play in the Masters, but he hopes to be the first to get the championship.
Tiger’s never competed in the Masters as a professional before. But that’s not why he’s feeling nervous today. Tiger’s on edge because there’s something wrong with his putting game. He knows if he doesn’t straighten it out, and soon, he’ll be in big trouble. So Tiger turns again to the person who taught him everything: his father.
Tiger feels lucky that his dad, Earl, made it to Augusta. A month and a half ago, Earl barely survived a triple bypass heart surgery. The doctors ordered him to avoid travel and stay in bed, but there was no way he was going to miss Tiger’s first Masters.
Earl is lying in bed when Tiger walks into Earl's room, holding three golf balls and a putter. As Tiger gets into position and starts practicing, he asks his Dad, “Do you see anything?” Without hesitation, Earl responds, “Your hands are too low. Lift them up. Get that little arch in your hands like you always do.”
Tiger makes the adjustment. And immediately, he feels the difference in his posture and his stroke. He leaves confident he’s ready for tomorrow’s opening round. But things do not go as planned.
On the first day of the Masters, April 10th, 1997, as Tiger finishes the ninth hole, he’s angry and confused.
Leading up to the event, many industry insiders were confident Tiger would easily win the tournament. In fact, even Jack Nicklaus predicted that Tiger would win more Masters than he and the legendary golfer, Arnold Palmer, combined. But after his first nine holes at Augusta, Tiger is struggling. He heads into the second half of the first day with an unimpressive score of 40; four points above par.
As he makes his way to the tenth hole, Tiger thinks back to all of the other times he’s been counted out. He remembers his training from his dad. He focuses on the fact that he cannot control what’s happened; only what happens next.
Tiger knocks his first shot of the 10th hole perfectly down the middle of the course. Immediately, he feels different, confident. He gets the ball onto the green with his second shot. And then he puts it in the hole from 15 feet away. He thinks to himself, “Okay, this is it… I’ll be fine.”
The rest of the day Tiger feels like himself again. Over the next eight holes, he makes up lost ground and finishes opening day in fourth place. The next day, he makes even more progress. He finishes eight strokes under par, which puts him in first place with a three shot lead.
But Tiger knows it’s still early to celebrate. There are two full days, and 36 holes of golf left to play before the tournament is over. Tiger will need every ounce of mental toughness he can muster to maintain his lead and walk away victorious.
Act Three: Winning the Masters
It’s April 13th, 1997.
Tiger stands on the green of the 18th hole, poised to close out his win on the last day of the Masters Tournament. The crowd is silent as he squares up for a four foot putt and taps the ball gently. As it rolls into the hole, the crowd explodes with excitement. Tiger pumps his fist in the air. He hugs his caddie and then walks straight for his dad. They share a long hug as Tiger fights back tears.
At the age of just 21, Tiger is the youngest golfer to ever win the Masters tournament. He finishes with a score of 270, a record-breaking 18 shots under par. He beats his closest competitor by 12 strokes, setting yet another record. And as a multi-racial competitor, Tiger’s win also has historical significance, heralding an exciting new era for what has largely been a white sport.
Over the next decade, Tiger continues to achieve unprecedented athletic and financial success. From 1997 to 2009, he wins the PGA Player of the Year award ten times. He leads the PGA Tour in money winnings nine times during that same period.
But off the golf course, Tiger is a complicated figure. His professional reputation has been marred by a series of scandals. Though in spite of his personal shortcomings, there is little doubt that Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer to ever play the game.
Years after his first Masters win, in February 2021, Tiger is injured in a car accident. He breaks both legs and one of his ankles. Many proclaim that Tiger’s career is over.
But Tiger recovers and fights his way back. In early April 2022, t week, Tiger tantalized the media, golf fans, and gamblers everywhere, and played in his first official tournament in almost two years. It’s the latest comeback in a career defined by them. But few come-from-behind victories could ever eclipse the one Tiger achieved 25 years ago today, on April 13, 1997.
But, against all odds, Tiger recovers and fights his way back. Just last week, Tiger tantalized the media, golf fans, and gamblers everywhere, by winning the Masters again for the 6th time, tying the record previously held by the great Jack Nicklaus. Tiger’s victory is the latest come-from-behind win in a career defined by them. But few comebacks could ever eclipse the one Tiger pulled off 25 years ago today, on April 13, 1997.
Next on History Daily.April 14th, 1865. The actor John Wilkes Booth assassinates U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Ruben Abrahams Brosbe.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.