LAS VEGAS – Davis Love III got into an argument, as if someone cared. He played in front of a handful of mostly silent fans who couldn’t help but notice the riot spread a few holes in front of him as Tiger Woods slid through the top nine on a historic sports Sunday.
“Bring it home, Mr. Woods,” shouted the well-lubricated man from the hills as Woods entered the Las Vegas Invitational, a tournament that suddenly became the hottest ticket in town.
“Tiger, tiger, tiger,” they sang as they strained and pushed each other to glimpse the greatness ahead.
It was 25 years ago that week and golf would change forever.
By the age of 20, Woods was already a phenomenon. He won his third straight US amateur earlier this year, then turned pro for a Nike Hello, world campaign that made him a millionaire before he ever hit a shot for money.
Tigermania was brewing, but Woods hadn’t actually had his official coming-out party yet. That was going to take a win, something he hadn’t made in four tournaments since making his professional debut in Milwaukee.
Still, four strokes back into Sunday were close enough to bring an additional 10,000 fans to the foothills on the outskirts of Las Vegas who would never have thought of going to a golf tournament any other time. They believed, even if some of Wood’s professional colleagues were a little annoyed at the attention given to a player who wasn’t even able to legally gamble in the city’s casinos.
“Everything was tiger, tiger,” said an angry Fred Funk earlier in the week after an inaugural 62 put him at the top of the leaderboard but barely featured in the morning paper. “You kind of forget everyone else out here.”
Nobody else really mattered that day. Not Fred Funk. Certainly not Ronnie Black, who took the lead in the last round and will forever hold a historic footnote in golf.
I followed Woods as he went into the race and covered the tournament for The Associated Press. He would shoot 63 on the second round despite a second shot from the right of the 16th fairway that went into the water on the par-5 hole.
He didn’t shout profanity at anyone as he watched the ball go away.
As a sign of the future, Woods simply overwhelmed the TPC Summerlin course at the weekend. He conquered the third hole on his final round, and on the ninth he hit a 6-iron into the green of the par-5 hole while playing partner Keith Fergus hit two drivers and was still short.
Fans had never seen anything like it. Woods crushed drives in places his competitors didn’t even have in their mileage books.
A new era in golf had suddenly dawned. The fans didn’t need encouragement to jump on board.
When Woods took the lead in the second nine on Sunday, I went right after him and recorded scenes I’d never seen in golf. Polite applause had been replaced by loud screams and fans ran to the next after each shot, trying to get into position to catch a glimpse of the young phenomenon.
A 12-foot birdie putt tied Woods for the lead on the par-3 14th hole, and by the time we got to the 15th tee, the ropes could barely hold people who touched Woods or begged him to throw a golf ball.
“Can’t you see we’ve got a little something going on here?” Caddy Mike “Fluff” Cowan cautioned an overly eager fan asking for Woods’ ball as the crowd moved to the 15th tee.
Woods and Love would need extra holes that day to sort things out, but Woods’ coronation wouldn’t wait any longer. After hitting an iron safely on the green at the first playoff hole, he watched Love airmail his short iron into the rear bunker. When Love couldn’t make it up and down, Woods had the first of 82 PGA Tour wins.
The win paid $ 297,000 and was rewarded with a Masters invitation for 1997. Woods posed on the 18th green with two scantily clad showgirls and the oversized check, with no hint of the scandalous things that would bind him forever to Las Vegas later in his career.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Woods. “But it’s like winning the amateur. I really can’t say what it means until I think about it. “
Six months later, Woods won his first green jacket in a runaway, his first of 15 major championship wins. He was to become the greatest player of his time and arguably the greatest of all time.
It all started when he hit the jackpot in Las Vegas.
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