The best round no one saw: Tiger Woods recalls the 59 that hinted at history

A week before he won his first Masters, Woods played at such a scorching clip, he forced his playing partner to walk off the course

Jamie Squire

Tiger Woods’ 12-shot, color-barrier shattering victory in the 1997 Masters might be the most impactful event in golf history, but, according to the man himself, the best round of his life happened the week earlier.

The date was April 4, six days before the first round of Woods’ first Masters appearance as a professional. As was his custom then, Woods was set to play a casual-but-competitive round—every round, under any circumstance, comes with a healthy dose of competition when Woods is involved—at his home course, Isleworth Country Club in Windermere, Fla., with Mark O’Meara, a close friend who served as Woods’ mentor in his early years on the PGA Tour.

Woods had been a professional for less than a year but already had three tour wins and had risen to World No. 14. He had flashed signs of his dominant potential but hadn’t quite emerged as an icon, as he would a week later. O’Meara was actually the higher-ranked player at No. 8. This, then, had the fixings of an even match.

Instead, over the next two days, Woods showed O’Meara why he would become the greatest player of his generation—if not of all time.

“We teed off on the back nine,” Woods tells Golf Digest. “I parred 10. Birdied 11 and 12. Eagled 13. Birdied 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 and 1. I had a 3-iron into No. 3, the par 5, and I made par.”

To be fair, he was a little distracted.

“As we were playing the third hole, the space shuttle [Columbia] took off. And so we got to see over Cape Canaveral, to see the smoke as the space shuttle took off. It was a pretty cool day.”

Woods also had an iron into No. 7, the second par 5 on the front nine, and again made par.

“And I still shot 59. So I had the opportunity to shoot something really, really low.”

The 13-under 59 came on a course that measured 7,149 yards and rated 74.4. The scorecard hung in the Isleworth clubhouse as the official course record until the course underwent a significant renovation in 2004. Since then, as a Golf Digest article from 2014 details, the scorecard has been lost.

The 59 remains the only time Woods has posted golf’s magic number. And, interestingly, he’s never shot 60 in his life.

“I’ve shot 61 a bunch,” he says. Four times on tour, to be exact, most recently in the second round of the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club.

Did the 59 give Woods the confidence he needed to absolutely annihilate a field of the world’s best golfers a week later?

“Well, that—and the next day, too. We teed off on 10 again. I birdied 10, I make a hole-in-one on 11, and Mark just left,” Woods says with a hearty laugh. "It was a helluva two days.”

O’Meara recounted the day-after hijinks, and the gambling details that accompaned them, to the Action Network’s Jason Sobel. The story begins after Woods birdied their first hole of the day.

“He gets up to the [next] tee, he’s hitting like an 8-iron. I haven’t even gotten out of my cart, but he hits it and it’s going right at it. It one-hops and goes into the hole for a hole-in-one. So I go over and take $100 or whatever it was, I can’t remember, and I put it on his cart seat. I didn’t even hit my shot. I said, ‘That was a really nice shot. I quit. I’ll see you later on the driving range when you get done.’

“He’s like, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘I quit. You shot 13 under yesterday, you just jarred that, you’re 16 under for the last 20 holes. I’m not playing golf anymore with you.

“That was awesome. I hate that guy.”

It’s no wonder Woods didn’t panic five days later, when he shot 40 on his opening nine of the Masters given his torrid stretch the week before. Woods would shoot 30 on the back nine to get into red numbers after the opening round. The rest, well, you know what happened.