On the 25th anniversary of his debut, a look back on “THE GOLF GOAT”, Tiger Woods’ magical run to begin his TOUR career

On the 25th anniversary of his debut, a look back on “THE GOLF GOAT”,  Tiger Woods’ magical run to begin his TOUR career

Remembering Tiger’s early days as a pro

On the 25th anniversary of his debut, a look back on Tiger Woods’ magical run to begin his TOUR career

  • Tiger Woods made his professional debut at the Greater Milwaukee Open at the Brown Deer Park golf course in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (J.D. Cuban/Getty Images)
    • Facebook
    • Twitter
    • Google+
    • LinkedIn
    Tiger Woods made his professional debut at the Greater Milwaukee Open at the Brown Deer Park golf course in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. @TigerWoods

It was 25 years ago today that the phone rang inside my cubicle on the second floor of the old gray concrete Orlando Sentinel building off Orange Avenue in downtown Orlando. We are talking land lines, folks, with those long, curly cords that an engineer from MIT could not untangle. I was working as the newspaper’s full-time golf writer, and by then had a rather rich collection of major-winning golf professionals, or “locals,” living in O-Town. Nick Price. Ernie Els. Payne Stewart. Mark O’Meara. Nick Faldo. Corey Pavin. Lee Janzen. Oh, and down the road at Bay Hill, one Arnold Palmer.

That was just the A-list. Lake Nona Golf Club used to erect professional signs at its front gates greeting their members whenever one captured a PGA TOUR event, but that was happening at such a pace the club adjusted to saluting only those who won majors. On this particular sleepy Thursday, The Greater Milwaukee Open was teeing off at Brown Deer Park in Milwaukee. The fellow writer phoning me sounded as if he’d just found treasure buried somewhere in the deep sea.

“Hear about Tiger?” he gushed. Hear about Tiger? Sure. I hadn’t exactly been residing under a rock. That Sunday, Woods had captured his third consecutive U.S. Amateur. Start of the week, he announced he was turning pro, with some $60 million in endorsement deals already signed. Nike, “Hello, World,” and all that stuff. This day marked his pro debut. So yes, to answer the question, I had heard about Tiger.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn

“Well, you probably don’t know this,” the voice told me. “When Tiger just teed off, he was announced ‘from Orlando, Florida.’”

This was news. Big news. Frankly, those few words turned my professional life upside-down, but only in the best of ways. We’d come to learn that Woods, a native Californian who had decided to leave Stanford after two years, had procured a three-bedroom villa inside the tiny and gated Isleworth community. Welcome to Florida, land of no state income tax. We would chronicle not only his tournament days, but sometimes even his days off. What was he doing? Where was he playing next? Would he play in the TOUR’s regular-season finale at Disney? Between “Hello, World” and Woods’ 21st birthday in late December, we would write 117 stories on the young man.

Veteran caddie Michael “Fluff” Cowan was the man with the true front-row seat. We would settle in somewhere in the first few rows, pretty good view, with an incredible opportunity to watch this game’s young rocket ship take flight. It was amazing to watch unfold. Twenty-five years of sand filtered through the hourglass may render a few of the memories hazy, but others are enduringly vivid. Here are a few stories from Tiger’s very early days as a pro:

woods-debut-1694-jdcuban
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn

Tiger Woods lines up a shot during the Greater Milwaukee Open at the Brown Deer Park golf course in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (J.D. Cuban/Getty Images)

Milwaukee Debut

On the heels of his comeback U.S. Amateur victory at Pumpkin Ridge (his record third consecutive), Woods would finish 60th in first pro start at the Greater Milwaukee Open, which was both solid and memorable. He would earn $2,544, which was a whole bunch more than the $333 that Jack Nicklaus had earned in his first pro start. There was a feeling something special was happening. I can’t remember Newsweek and People magazine being there the day anyone else turned pro.

Woods piped a drive 336 yards right down the fairway on his very first swing, and opened with 67. On Sunday, he thrilled with the gallery by making a hole-in-one. Loren Roberts won the tournament. Tiger finished tied with, among others, Paul Azinger and Ed Fiori, the man who would clip him in a few weeks at Quad City.
What stood out was an interview Woods participated in after that first round with two-time U.S. Open champion and budding analyst Curtis Strange. Strange asked Woods what would determine a successful first week for him.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn

Sep 28, 2016; Chaska, MN, USA; Team USA vice-captain Tiger Woods reacts during the practice round for the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National Golf Club.

“Two things,” Woods said. “To play four solid rounds, and I’m off to a good start today. And a victory would be awfully nice, too.”

Had Strange been consuming a ham-and-cheese sandwich, there’s a good chance he’d have snortled it through his nostrils. Did he just say win? Basically, Strange’s take was this: What audacity, for a young rookie to state something so bold. “To me,” Strange countered to Woods, “that comes off as cocky, or brash.”

Woods explained: “I’ve always figured that, why go to a tournament if you’re not going there to try to win? There’s no point in even going. That’s the attitude I’ve had my entire life, and that’s the attitude I’ll always have. I always explain to my dad, ‘Second sucks. And third is even worse.’ I want to win. That’s my nature.”

To which Strange retorted aloud what most of us were probably thinking that day. “You’ll learn.”
Funny, try to find that video these days, and it falls under the header “Curtis Strange schools Tiger Woods.” Actually, Woods would win four of his first 15 PGA TOUR starts as a pro. Who schooled who?

woods-milwaukee-1694-jdcuban
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn

Tiger Woods plays a shot on the fairway in front of the leader board during the Greater Milwaukee Open at the Brown Deer Golf Course in Glendale, Wisconsin. (J.D. Cuban/Getty Images)

The Quad at Quad

Woods finished 11th at the Canadian Open (70-68-68) which was shortened to 54 holes, then headed off to Coal Valley, Ill., for the Quad City Classic. The event was played opposite the Presidents Cup in Virginia, which certainly earned a higher billing on the marquee that week. That is, until Woods shot 64 in the second round, tacked on a 67, and took a lead into the final round at Quad City.

Woods had a three-shot lead by the time he reached the 460-yard fourth hole, and this was to be a coronation. A handful of national writers had departed the Presidents Cup early that Sunday morning, presumably to watch Woods win his first PGA TOUR title. But on the fourth hole, trying to cut a tee shot, Woods hit a double-cross that finished left in a pond inside a heavily-treed area. He dropped and tried to hit a hero shot through a small opening, but clipped an oak tree, his second ball bounding left into the pond. He made 8. The quad at Quad. A few holes later, at the seventh, Woods four-putted and walked off with double.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn

Woods tumbled to fifth. Winning that day was Ed Fiori, a short, stocky fireplug of a man nicknamed “The Grip,” who was on the verge of losing his PGA TOUR card. He was 43, and last had won on TOUR when Woods was 6 years old. Fiori already had told his wife that if he missed securing a card, he was ready to go to work as a charter-boat captain back home in Texas. On the eve of the final round, Fiori wasn’t too high on his changes against golf’s new Golden Child

“He hits a wedge to every par 4, and he’s on all the par 5s (in two shots),” said Fiori, who surrendered considerable length to Woods. “How are you going to beat someone like that? It’s a grass snake getting a cobra.”

Woods would build a reputation as a prolific closer, but wouldn’t close the deal on that day, shooting 72. Woods was visibly crushed and bothered by the result.

“I will tell you one thing,” Woods said. “I will learn a lot from this.”

One more lesson: In golf, sometimes the grass snake gets the cobra.

woods-fluff-1694-jdcuban
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn

Tiger Wood talks with his caddy “Fluff” during the Las Vegas Invitational in Las Vegas, Nevada. Woods won the tournament, capturing his first ever professional win. (J.D. Cuban/Getty Images)

A Quick Georgia Exit

The Woods train rolled on with a nice tie for third at the B.C. Open (another event shortened to three rounds because of weather), with Woods collecting his best check to date ($58,000) as he continued his quest to earn enough to get a TOUR card and avoid the grueling, six-round Qualifying School. He was aiming to make about $165,000. Woods was set to use his fifth sponsor exemption (of an available seven) at the Buick Challenge in rural Callaway Gardens, Ga. Only Woods was about to leave on a mid-day train.

This writer was in a van to the course at Callaway Gardens on Wednesday, having just flown in, scrambling to maybe get a glimpse of Woods at least hitting balls, and then planning to attend a dinner that evening at which Woods was scheduled to receive the Haskins Award, given to the previous year’s outstanding college player.

In the deepest Southern drawl, the sweet woman driving my van (it was just the two of us) finished a conversation, slowly placed a walkie-talkie down in the console, and turned to me with the blankest of looks. “That was my husband,” she said, having already explained that he was volunteering that week in player transportation. “He said he’s taking Tiger … to the airport.”

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn

True. Having been on the grounds (he played nine holes with Davis Love III and Peter Jacobsen on Tuesday), Woods cited exhaustion and burnout, having played nine of 10 weeks, and said he needed a break, especially mentally. IMG, his management company, released a statement, and Woods, like Elvis, had left the building. The Haskins dinner had to be canceled. Bob Berry, the tournament’s executive director, said tournament ticket sales already had doubled the previous year’s totals, but the fans would not be seeing whom they came to see. A couple of days later, rain dripping heavily off his soaked bucket hat, Berry announced the tournament would be only 36 holes after play was washed out on the weekend. (Michael Bradley would win a five-man playoff.) It had been a rough week all around.

Woods later would apologize for his abrupt change of direction, and he would attend a rescheduled Haskins Award dinner six weeks later, in November. Again, though, we learned something about Woods. He knows his body and his limits. He would rest, recharge … and then win tournaments in two of his next three starts.

woods-lasvegas-1694-jdcuban
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn

Tiger Woods speaks at a press conference after winning the Las Vegas Invitational in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was the first win of his pro career. (J.D. Cuban/Getty Images)

Vegas Jackpot

The first week of October, Woods still on the hunt to earn enough to garner a card for 1997, he showed up to the Las Vegas Invitational, and that was when everything finally would fall into place. Rested, he opened with 70 in the 90-hole event, then shot rounds of 63-68-67-64 (his 63 included a ball in the water, and instructor Butch Harmon said Woods “should have shot in the 50s”). Woods defeated Davis Love III in a playoff.

Said Love, “We were all trying to postpone the inevitable.”

The postponement wasn’t going to happen. As for the card he was chasing, Woods now had secured one, exempt on the TOUR for the next two seasons with his victory. Q-School is one tournament that Woods never did enter.

woods-tiger-1694-pgatourarchive
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn

Tiger Woods with trophy at the 1996 Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic October 1996 (PGA TOUR Archive/PGA)

Some Disney Magic

Woods always has been coy about releasing his schedule, but early on in his professional journey, the Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic wasn’t on it. Woods had plotted out where his seven starts via sponsor exemptions would be  (Milwaukee, Canadian Open, Quad City, B.C. Open, Callaway Gardens, Las Vegas and Texas) and Disney would have been eight starts in as many weeks. Originally, if Plan B was needed, Disney week would be an off-week before Q-School. Woods picked up a start when he withdrew from Callaway Gardens, and it all become moot when he won for the first time in Las Vegas. He could play wherever he wanted. Now, his thoughts turned to a new goal: He was 34th in earnings after another great finish at the Texas Open (third), and top 30 would make the TOUR Championship at Southern Hills. Could Woods possibly qualify for the TOUR Championship in just seven starts?

Mike McPhillips, who later would work for the PGA TOUR, was the tournament director at Disney, and he was keeping close tabs on Woods’ progress week to week, making contingency plans if he decided to show up. (“We at Disney have already had the Lion King,” McPhillips quipped. “Now we’re looking for the sequel.”) Operationally, there are TOUR events and there are Tiger TOUR events. When the phone call arrived inside the tournament office that Woods was committing to play in his new hometown event, McPhillips stood up from his chair, told his staff the great news, and then ran out, fully clothed, and did the most joyous cannonball ever into a nearby pool.

Back then, the local newspaper often would put together a special section that would run the Sunday prior to the tournament’s start. On the budget at this point were stories about Tiger, Tiger, Tiger and Tiger. With a Tiger sidebar, of course, and a few Tiger charts. Frankly, the veteran players respected what he was achieving, but they also were growing weary from having to incessantly talk about him. Every question they faced in every city seemingly had some connection to the game’s new wunderkind.

More than a handful of players I had approached for interviews heading into the Disney event declined (some more than politely than others) or had curt answers when I approached with my Tiger questions.
And then there was Payne Stewart. He always was one of a kind. I was told when I took over the golf beat that Stewart would be one of my tougher “local” subjects, that he could be moody at times and at others would choose not to talk at all. Truthfully, I had known him for a while from starts at Bay Hill and Disney, and we got along fine. He loved talking about his craft, and I enjoyed listening to what he had to say. Still, I thought he might be inside the camp of being Tigered-out when I approached him in front of the tiny players’ locker room that players from the Magnolia and Palm courses shared a few days before the tournament. He was chomping hard on gum, as he often did, and stretching on a door overhang when I approached.

“Got a few minutes to chat?” I asked.

“About what?” Stewart said somewhat mischievously, fully knowing the answer. “Tiger,” I said. At least I was honest.

Stewart paused, chomping on that gum. That usually wasn’t a good sign. This time, fortunately, it was.
“I’ll talk about that guy all day long,” he said.

And then he went on to detail why he’d talk All Things Tiger, approaching this in a light that other players just were not seeing at the time.

“Tiger Woods has created an unbelievable interest in our TOUR, and that’s increased interest in our jobs, and that’s kept Corporate America looking at our TOUR year-round,” Stewart said. “It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out that, hey, he’s good for my business.”

God bless Payne Stewart.

A few days later, there they were on the back nine of the Mag, Tiger and Payne, battling for the trophy. It was one of the most electric days I ever have witnessed in all my years in golf. There were 20,000 fans that day, and every single one seemed to be watching Woods and Stewart. We had three sports writers, a photographer and a columnist from The Sentinel there that day, and at one point on the back nine, kneeling next to a green, I looked around to count all five of us there. OK, so much for the rest of the tournament. Tiger Woods can suck all the air of the room, or from a 7,200-yard golf course, like nobody else can.

Woods shot 66, Stewart shot 67, and Woods won by a shot. (A forgotten sidenote: The late Taylor Smith also shot 21-under that week, which was Woods’ winning total, but was disqualified because the lower of his two split grips on his long putter had a flat side; the grips were not uniform.)

Suddenly, Woods and Mickey Mouse were standing on a green and one of them was bound for the TOUR Championship. Woods had a pedestrian week he’d soon forget at Southern Hills, tying for 21st. He shot only one round in the 60s (final-round 68) and was stressed because of health problems that his father, Earl, had been experiencing that week in Tulsa.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn

It did little to diminish what he’d done in a matter of weeks. When the last putt dropped in Tulsa, here were his official numbers in eight starts as a professional: Two wins, two thirds, five consecutive finishes of T-5 or better, 22 of 31 rounds in the 60s, and seven rounds of 66 or better. He earned nearly $100,000 per start ($790,594). Oh, and he was named PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year.

A few months later, in April of 1997, Woods would win the Masters by 12 shots at age 21, and things would really take off. Woods tied the all-time PGA TOUR victory mark (82) and has captured 15 major titles. The wick that ignited it all, set off the launchpad if you will, will forever be that magical late summer and early fall of 1996. Those first days and weeks of Tiger, exhibiting his innate drive and determination; PGA TOUR card or bust. Every moment of it was beautiful to watch, and we were privileged to be there. It’s a journey we may never witness again.

woods-masters-1694-samgreenwood
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • LinkedIn

Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo 1997 Masters Tournament.