Chapter 1: Establishing the aura
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It started with magic in Vegas, then a 12-stroke win at the Masters on his way to becoming the youngest world No. 1
Written by Jim McCabe @PGATOUR
In Las Vegas, where it’s always “Showtime,” some attractions never grow old. Consider the year 1996, when Wayne Newton put on his 25,000th show and Siegfried & Roy hit the 15,000 mark. But popular as those acts might have been, it was the premier of a 21-year-old performer in the sizzling Vegas spotlight of 1996 that captured the attention of a sporting nation.
That Tiger Woods – nearly 23 years after his maiden victory at TPC Summerlin – maintains a massive following and continues to entertain his fans to levels no golfer has ever realized makes him arguably the longest-running phenomenon in sports. Woods’ excellence has played out across three decades and has seen him walk into the PGA TOUR winner’s circle in six countries and 16 different American states, leaving a whopping 72 different players to settle for second to his brilliance.
Win No. 1: Oct. 6, 1996 – Las Vegas Invitational
Tiger Woods' first career PGA TOUR win at 1996 Shriners Children's Open
So accustomed to his fist pumps and final-hole heroics have we become, that we need a reminder that there was a time in the PGA TOUR universe when it was all so new, when the story was perched on the starting line. It was the Las Vegas Invitational in the fall of ’96, a tournament that was Woods’ fifth as a professional. He had shown positive progression in his first four starts – from T-60 to 11th to T-5 to T-3 – but when he opened with a 1-under 70 at the Las Vegas Hilton Country Club, Woods was mired in a share of 97th, a whopping eight behind the leader, Keith Fergus.
Then came the first snippet of the young man’s magic. He blistered TPC Summerlin with 63 to get into a share of 11th, followed with a 68 at the Desert Inn to move into joint eighth, then posted a 67 at Summerlin to creep into T-7. He would start the fifth and final round at 268, four behind Ronnie Black, who was one ahead of his playing competitor, Davis Love III.
Woods, meanwhile, teed off several groups ahead, paired with Fergus.
“Finally,” Fergus said to himself, “I get to see what this guy is all about and if he meets the hype.”
The kid’s eagle at the par-5 third to get to 3-under on his round was eye-opening to Fergus, but at the par-5 ninth, Woods’ aura was exponentially higher. Hitting a driver off the deck just to lay up, Fergus watched Woods hit a 230-yard shot that scraped the sky and came to rest 10 feet from the flagstick. “Four-iron?” he said to Mike “Fluff” Cowan, but Woods’ caddie shook his head. “Six.”
Fergus bowed his head, humbled and awed.
“At that stage, he was the best ball-striker I’d ever seen.”
The electricity continued to the back nine – four more birdies, a pulsating 8-under 64, and Woods signed his card three strokes in the lead and moved to the practice range to hit balls and stay loose … just in case. Much to Love’s chagrin, nearly every spectator went with Woods to the range.
“I think I had 40 people following me,” said Love, “and 20 of them I knew.”
Then 32 and in the prime of his Hall of Fame career, Love drove the green at the par-4 15th to get to 26 under, then pulled even with Woods with a birdie at the par-5 16th. With a chance to win in regulation, Love misfired on birdie tries at 17 and 18 and probably deep down knew he had very little chance in the playoff. If so, he was right, because Woods made an easy par at the par-4 18th, while Love hit a miserable approach from 159 yards into a bunker, made bogey, and quickly exited as Kultida Woods embraced her son, who was quickly surrounded by Vegas showgirls, on hand for the trophy presentation.
Woods’ father, Earl, was not there. “Probably out golfing,” said Woods, who was also missing what would become his can of spinach – the power red shirt on Sunday. Instead, he wore a multi-colored shirt (OK, maybe the collar had some red in it) that was mostly white and adorned with a huge Nike Swoosh in the middle of his chest.
But all the other components to his incomparable game were present – he overpowered the par 5s with an eagle and three birdies, played the weekend in 13 under with just one bogey, and proved that an eight-shot deficit after one round was not insurmountable.
“We all knew he was going to win some time,” Love said. “I just didn’t want it to be today.”
Perhaps it didn’t take the powers of Nostradamus, but Love offered a sense of clairvoyance that has proved striking. “It is something we are going to have to get used to for a long time,” he said. “Everybody better watch out.”
And for 23 years, we have watched and marveled, until it became a record that likely won’t ever be broken, 83 PGA TOUR wins and counting. Each one a study in excellence.
By the Numbers: The 1996 Las Vegas Invitational is Tiger's only victory with more than three eagles in a week.
Win No. 2: Oct. 20, 1996 – The Walt Disney World / Oldsmobile Classic
Tiger Woods wins 1996 Walt Disney World-Oldsmobile Classic
An Orlando resident and annual competitor in this hometown tournament, Payne Stewart had never seen crowds of 20,000 for the weekend, let alone the final round. So, when he surveyed the wild and robust scene on a warm Sunday, he smiled. “All the accolades need to go to Tiger Woods,” said Stewart. “He’s the shot in the arm the TOUR needs.”
With his every swing and every step scrutinized, Woods shot 66 to Stewart’s 67 and at 21-under 267 edged his fellow “O-town” neighbor in the natty knickers by one. With a second win in two weeks, and his fifth straight top-five, Woods earned a spot in the TOUR Championship, though the victory didn’t come without a layer of controversy.
Also, at 267, Taylor Smith thought he had a spot in a playoff, only to be disqualified for using a non-conforming grip on his putter.
Woods acknowledged sympathy for Smith, then suggested reporters get a better grasp of the landscape. “It may be surprising to you guys, but it’s not that surprising to people who know me,” he said, before adding this: “I haven’t really played my best yet.”
By the Numbers: This was Tiger's 2nd win in 7 starts and his fifth consecutive top-five finish.
Win No. 3: Jan. 12, 1997 – Mercedes Championship
Tiger Woods wins 1997 Mercedes Championships
There was one hole to play, but it wasn’t a sun-drenched walk up 18. Nope, it was a soggy march to the 186-yard, par-3 seventh at LaCosta Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, California With the other 17 holes under water, the short seventh offered the only safe harbor for a playoff between Woods and Tom Lehman, both tied at 14-under 202 in this rain-shortened, 54-hole event.
If Woods appeared unruffled, it was understandable.
“At times,” wrote Ron Sirak of The Associated Press, “it seems the only thing the 21-year-old Woods can’t control is the weather.”
His golf ball is another story. That goes where he commands. So, after Lehman hit his 6-iron shot high up on the club face and watched it splash, Woods flushed his shot – also a 6-iron – and struggled to watch through rain drops. No matter, the crowd’s eruption told the story: The shot was stuffed inside of a foot.
Game, set, match. Three wins in nine starts, a .333 percentage that is outstanding if you’re a major leaguer, but out of this world if you’re a pro golfer. Not that Woods is impressed. “The only thing I set out to do is win every tournament,” he said.
By the Numbers: This is the only time in any of his stroke play victories where he birdied the final 4 holes of the final round to go onto win.
Win No. 4: April 13, 1997 – Masters
“Tiger came in expecting to win,” said CBS’ reporter Peter Kostis, and when The New York Times’ Larry Dorman asked Woods how he was playing, the swagger was vintage. “Wide, tight and rippin’ it,” he said.
Unforgettable, the first nine holes he played at Augusta National as a professional – bogeys at Nos. 1, 4, 8 and 9, out in 40 and oh, how the oddsmakers at Ladbrokes looked foolish for making Woods a 16-1 pick.
“I was as shocked as anyone,” Mark O’Meara said. “I knew how good he was playing.”
No worries, according to caddie Mike (Fluff) Cowan. “This is just the front nine. Let’s go play some golf on the back – shoot 35, 34 – and see where we are.”
Historic, the last 63 holes Woods would play. A 30 on the back nine, then 66-65-69 for 18-under 270 and a 12-stroke victory, with Tom Kite earning dubious distinction of runner-up.
Said Kite: “It was nice. I hate to say, ‘be in the hunt,’ because obviously no one was in the hunt today. But I won my golf tournament. Tiger won the other one.”
By the Numbers: Tiger won by 12 strokes, led the field in all par 5 scoring statistics and was the only player in the field to go 72 holes without recording a 3-putt.
Win No. 5: May 18, 1997 – GTE Byron Nelson Golf Classic
Tiger Woods wins 1997 GTE Byron Nelson Golf Classic
“I felt a little rusty,” said Woods, playing for the first time since his Masters win a month earlier.
If reporters muffled laughter, it was because Woods had just shot 64 at the TPC Four Seasons Resort in Irving, Texas. Rounds of 64 at Cottonwood Valley and 67 back at TPC Four Seasons put him into the lead, but not in a giving mood. “B,” he said, when asked to grade his performance.
Butch Harmon drove four hours from Houston on Saturday to address what Woods proclaimed were putting woes and David Berganio Jr. told reporters he had a strategy for a fourth-round pairing with the phenom. “Everybody’s watching Tiger, so I’ll just try to be on my game.”
Woods dusted Berganio, 68-73, won by two over Lee Rinker, and suggested his grade for the week was a C-plus.
“Tiger kept saying he didn’t have his ‘A game,’ ” said Rinker. “What is his A-game, 40 under?”
By the Numbers: This was the first of 25 total times where Tiger has won in back-to-back starts on the PGA TOUR.
Win No. 6: July 6, 1997 – Motorola Western Open
Tiger Woods wins 1997 Motorola Western Open
The sixth different player to be runner-up to the phenom offered his take. “You know, the crowd, the media … everybody is putting the red carpet down,” said Frank Nobilo. “It’s a tremendous situation to be in.”
Trips of 67-72-68 provided Woods – who had moved to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking a month earlier – with another 54-hole lead and he closed well again, shooting 68 to beat Nobilo by three. “I won it with my mind this week,” he said, though he conceded golf had seen this sort of act before.
“Jack (Nicklaus) had it. Every time he’d tee it up, he felt he was going to beat everybody – and I think that’s the mindset you have to have if you want to be able to win.”
By the Numbers: Tiger averaged 311.1 yards off the tee to lead the field.
Win No. 7: May 10, 1998 – BellSouth Classic
Tiger Woods wins 1998 BellSouth Classic
Not yet 23, Woods had already established an incomparable yardstick. Need proof? Consider he had gone 16 PGA TOUR tournaments without a win and even golf publications were asking what’s wrong with Tiger Woods?
“To the newly initiated,” wrote Jaime Diaz in Sports Illustrated, “when Woods doesn’t win every other week, the world is off its axis.”
It returned to a proper orbit at TPC Sugarloaf as Woods again took a 54-hole lead and successfully closed, his level-par 72 leaving him at 17 under to edge Jay Don Blake by one. A victory, Woods acknowledged, that was owed to good fortune, as shots he made at the ninth and 11th holes somehow avoided water hazards.
“The only reason I won today is I got lucky breaks,” he said.
The bad break for the competition? Woods showed signs of being comfortable with swing changes that were being cited for his “drought.”
By the Numbers: This was Tiger's second of eight total wins in the state of Georgia.
Jim McCabe has covered golf since 1995, writing for The Boston Globe, Golfweek Magazine, and PGATOUR.COM. Follow Jim McCabe on Twitter.