1996 The best four rounds I've ever put together were during the 1994 Players Championship, where I shot 264. But I came close to matching it for fifty-four holes at the '96 Masters.
It started in the first round when I equaled Nick Price's course-record sixty-three. My lead swelled to six shots after three rounds, and then everything started to cave in.
I've never been one to shy away from my own screwups, and screw up is exactly what I did during that final round. People use the word "choke," but I don't think that's right. I just plain screwed up. I'd do anything to have the round over—no way would I ever shoot seventy-eight again.
I sensed early on that things weren't right. I said to Tony Navarro, my caddie, "Boy, it's going to be a tough day." I just couldn't feel what I had the previous three days. The more I tried, the more it went away.
Obviously I wasn't playing well that day, but if I could take one of those seventy-eight shots over it would be my approach to the ninth green. You have to be so precise at Augusta, and when my wedge came up three feet short and the ball rolled down the hill I knew then that the back side would be one of the longest nines I would ever play.
The embrace I shared with Nick Faldo on the eighteenth green meant a great deal to me. He was genuinely concerned about how I would handle what happened that day, and how others would handle it. As we hugged, he leaned in and said sincerely and succinctly, "Don't let the bastards get you down."
That, I'll never forget.
Since '96 Of everything that has transpired in my career, I am most proud of how I handled that loss. As devastating as it was at the time, it was important for me to go to the media center and handle the bullets that were fired at me, and then get up, walk away and say, Hey, it's over and done with. Too many athletes turn down the media and, in doing so, eschew their responsibilities. You need to accept what happened.
When we got back home, my wife, Laura, and I went to the beach and had a good cry, which is exactly what I needed to do. I'm not one of those macho guys who think men can't cry. If you're hurting, unload.
The whole experience changed my life. My most poignant memory was when a man at my son's soccer match came up to me and said that because of the 1996 Masters, I had changed his life. I doubt I would have generated that kind of reaction had I won.
Honestly, if you had told me twenty years ago that I'd never win a Green Jacket, I wouldn't have believed it. Hell, after 1981 I thought I'd win one the very next year.
But you can't control what other players do out there, only what you do. If you have a weakness, you have to deal with it and still get around. That is the beauty of sport. You have to know you are going to hit highs and lows. You just have to embrace your mistakes and learn from them.
And I can sincerely say I have learned more about myself and my love for golf through the hard knocks than through the easy wins. I would not have the same depth of understanding if I didn't have to deal with the heartache. Sure, I would have loved to win more, but at the end of the day I didn't, and I had to channel that frustration and learn from every defeat.
Ultimately it doesn't matter how many majors you've won. It doesn't matter if you've never won a single tournament. It's the commitment you make to yourself and to the game that is the measure of how great you are.
If I stop playing golf tomorrow I'll have achieved nearly everything I ever wanted—more than most if a little less than others. I've felt agony and ecstasy. I've experienced things that very few people ever will.
The days you cry your eyes out and the days you celebrate with your friends—to me, that's what it's all about. Sure, there's a part of me that feels hollow, but that feeling is part of who I have become because of the Masters, and I would not dream of trading that, even for a Green Jacket.