As a reminder, remember 25 years ago – October 6, 1996 to be precise – when 20-year-old Woods broke his first PGA Tour win in his fifth start.
While the number of local journalists may have been thin compared to the Shriners Children’s Open this week – or at least compared to a month earlier when Woods made his professional debut in Milwaukee, or a few weeks earlier when he was at the Quad City Classic in Illinois – the Vegas storylines were abundant.
Driven to a large extent, of course, by players who were not too happy with the enthusiasm for Woods. “Everything was tiger, tiger,” groaned Fred Funk. “You kind of forget everyone else out here.”
Such chatter didn’t upset Woods, who might have come to the Las Vegas Invitational too young to take part in the casinos – “I can see, that’s it,” he shrugged – but he was already battle-hardened by the time it came to the media watch went and more than able to brush aside the petty criticisms.
TO THE RIGHT: Tiger rates a putt in Vegas in 1996. PHOTO: Sam Greenwood / PGA Tour Archives.
Equally impressive was Woods’ ability to casually leave behind the kind of pedestrian opening lap he produced at the Las Vegas Hilton, one of three seats used for the five lap Las Vegas Invitational. With a 70, Woods was eight behind Rick Fehr’s lead.
In the meantime, Woods had already demonstrated his explosive talent, which brought him three victories in a row in the US amateurs. After a tie for 60th place on his Milwaukee debut, Woods picked up a T11 in Canada, a stake of five in Quad City and a T3 in the BC Open.
He’d shot seven out of eight rounds off Vegas in the 1960s, so no one was shocked when Woods followed that 70 with an impressive 63 on the host course, TPC Summerlin, and a 68 at the Desert Inn, to tie for eighth To achieve place, six before Fehr’s lead.
Sorry Mr. Funk, but it didn’t matter that seven players had better 54-hole results or that luminaries like Davis Love III, Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson, Payne Stewart and Jim Furyk were present. All the spotlights were on Woods, mostly because it was a 90-hole tournament, which meant the Stanford boy had two more rounds to make up the gap.
Even though the third round had stopped Woods in the middle, he was in pain – mentally and physically. After all, he had played the top nine in Five-Under, so he was seething at 68. But more importantly, Woods had exacerbated a groin injury that he insisted on his US amateur victory in August.
“(With) all of the golf I’ve played, I never gave it a chance to heal,” explained Woods.
His burning desire to do the improbable – earn his PGA Tour card by finishing in the top 125 on the money list in less than 10 starts – had started the tough schedule. It had also sparked some controversy, with Woods retiring from the Buick Challenge, citing burnout, and a dinner that would see him receive the Haskins Award for the nation’s best college golfer.
Oh how that upset the troops.
“But he will probably take a little heat,” prophesied Peter Jacobsen, who was right. Love told reporters, “He’s a rookie and rookies make rookie mistakes,” while Stewart Cink, a former Haskins winner, was more direct, “To some extent, I think it offends all the players who won that award.”
A week later, Woods was in Vegas and let the criticism ride. “I got some messages from the guys saying they didn’t say exactly what was written,” he told reporters. “The boys were very nice to me.”
TO THE RIGHT: Woods wasn’t your typical rookie when he went on tour in 1996 and won on his first starts as a pro. PHOTO: Sam Greenwood / PGA Tour Archives.
Regardless of his diplomatic skills, Woods had a different personality when it came time to really pin it down. The competition was already noticing the ferocity of his focus.
Tending to that painful groin injury, Woods turned a quiet lap into something very intriguing when he cracked the par-5 on Saturday 16th to shoot five under 67 and get within four of leader Ronnie Black.
Then the magic that Woods had shown as an amateur and that would become his calling card as a professional poured out in the fifth round at TPC Summerlin. A birdie at the beginning sent the fans into an early frenzy, then an eagle came on the par 5 third to increase it again.
Woods kept his foot on the pedal. Birdies at numbers 9, 11, and 13 were electric. A birdie at 14 pulled him into a tie and a two-putt birdie at 16 gave him the lead in the clubhouse.
From the practice area, Woods received word that at 27-under, Love had tied a late eagle and birdie.
Months earlier, Woods, young and cheeky, had told Love that his dream was to fight and beat the established superstar, to which Love had replied, “Good luck, I hope you get the chance.” . “
Much to Love’s annoyance, this chance came at TPC Summerlin and Woods wasted little time collecting the money. A fairway-splitting 3-wood on the 18th his calling card.
“He would know I was in position for birdie,” said Woods, confirming that his strategy was to hit the first playoff hole.
The boy’s maturity was uncanny, he was right; Love couldn’t keep up with the shot and delivered an 8 iron into a left bunker. After cleverly scoring two putti for par, Woods watched Love miss a six-footed foot, so hats were taken off and handshakes were exchanged.
The oversized bill check for $ 297,000 is still in Woods’ office. But what resonates deeper is the post-game quote from Love, then 32 and at the height of his career.
“As disappointed as I am, I’m so happy for him,” said Love. “He’s a great player and he’s great for the tour.”
That’s right then. Still true 25 years later.
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