25 years, 79 wins later
A look back at Tiger Woods' first PGA TOUR start, a quarter-century later
February 12, 2018
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
(Note: This story originally ran on Feb. 14, 2017. Tiger Woods was unable to compete in the 2017 Genesis Open, but is scheduled to play in this year's event. It will be his first appearance at Riviera since 2006.)
Tiger Woods was 16 years old when he made his first PGA TOUR start, at the 1992 Nissan Open. He weighed just a spindly 140 pounds and had recently stopped using persimmon woods.
He would one day become the world's most famous athlete, but Woods needed permission from the principal's office to compete that week at Riviera Country Club.
His time there may have been short -- he missed the cut after shooting 72-75 -- but the education he received was more important than anything he would have learned during his sophomore year at Western High School.
“It was a life-changing moment for me,” Woods says now.
In the 25 years since that first start, Woods has won 79 times on the PGA TOUR, including 14 majors, while impacting the sport in ways few have equaled. He returns to Riviera this week as tournament host, his Tiger Woods Foundation now running the Genesis Open.
He will not compete because of a back injury, but the silver anniversary of his first start is still worth remembering.
Those who watched Woods play in 1992 were impressed with the teenager’s poise and raw talent, but he was humbled after his two rounds at Riviera. He finished 17 shots behind 36-hole leader Davis Love III. Woods realized he had more work to do before joining the professional ranks, which he did 4-1/2 years later.
"It was a learning experience. I learned I wasn't that good," Woods said after missing the cut. "I learned I have a long way to go. I'm not competitive at this level. I am at the junior level, but not at the pro level. These guys are so much better.
"I didn't think I was ready for it, and it showed me that I'm not. I just have to grow up, that's all."
Woods, who hit balls on national TV when he was 2 years old, faced a new level of media attention at Riviera. He was pursued by a pack of cameramen and journalists as he walked off the 18th green after shooting 72 in the first round.
“I would like to stand behind the curtain a little longer,” Woods said that week. “But I guess this tournament brought me out.”
His appearance on the PGA TOUR exposed him to a new audience. His fame only continued to grow.
“It changed a lot. I was known more nationally now,” Woods told PGATOUR.COM in January. “When I played junior tournaments and amateur tournaments, more people came out. I don’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. It was just an awareness of this new, young kid coming up, Tiger Woods.
“It was a very different world post-1992.”
Tiger Woods' historic first tee shot
Woods teed off at 8:28 a.m. in the first round of the tournament then known as the Nissan Open. According to Sports Illustrated, Woods would’ve normally been in Glenn Taylor’s advanced geometry class at Western High School.
Woods was on Riviera’s tiny first tee, which sits some 70 feet above the fairway, instead. Fans were flowing out of the Riviera clubhouse, filling its balconies to witness the historic moment.
Video of that tee shot has been shown countless times in the week's leading up to the Genesis Open. Woods marvels at the uninhibited swing of his younger self.
“I was skinny, but just the pure speed of my body, I wish I could do that again," he said in January.
He was nervous as he embarked on his first PGA TOUR round, but his 3-wood tee shot found the fairway. He compared the feeling to rigor mortis.
“I teed the ball up and I was totally fine with my practice swings, no big deal,” Woods recalled. “I get over the golf ball, no big deal. Look down the fairway, like ho hum, it's an easy tee shot from No. 1 at Riv.
“I take it back and the club felt like it weighed like eight tons. I didn't know if I could get it to the top of my swing. … I’d never felt the club get that heavy. I was nervous, like I always am before an event, but I had never felt so awkward going back.”
He two-putted for birdie on the first hole. It was his only birdie of the day, but he made just two bogeys and shot a respectable 1-over 72 in the first round. He was tied for 89th, eight shots behind leader Wayne Levi.
Woods’ appearance at Riviera was more than a year in the making.
Greg McLaughlin, the Nissan Open’s tournament director, had tried to invite Woods in 1991, but the tournament’s board rejected the idea.
Woods tried to Monday qualify instead, and came to the final hole with a shot at making it into the field. He needed eagle on Los Serranos Country Club’s par-5 18th, but his 3-wood second shot found the water.
Woods won the U.S. Junior Amateur, the first of six consecutive USGA championships, later that year. That accomplishment, and Woods' close call at the Monday qualifier, convinced the tournament board to invite the local phenom. Woods lived with his parents in Cypress, California, about an hour from Riviera.
McLaughlin got Woods’ number from the phone company’s directory assistance. He extended the invitation in fall 1991, several months before the tournament.
“Earl (Woods, Tiger’s father) answers the phone and, I’m a young person, only been in the business for a short time, … and I’m pretty intimidated talking to the guys,” McLaughlin recalls. “And I said, ‘Mr. Woods, Greg McLaughlin, Nissan Los Angeles Open. I wanted to talk to you about extending your son an exemption to play in the L.A. Open at Riviera.’
“Earl always had these pauses, these long pauses. So he pauses – I mean he says nothing, and I don’t have any idea where this conversation is going to go. I’ll never forget, he says, ‘My son would be honored to play in the L.A. Open.’”
Tiger played several practice rounds at Riviera in the following months. His caddie was a Riviera looper named Ron “Graphite” Matthews who’d caddied for Amy Alcott on the LPGA.
Soon after, McLaughlin and tournament chairman Rich Davis played at Riviera with Tiger and Earl.
“I don’t know what I was expecting. I guess I was expecting kind of a professional to come walking in, and he's a 15-year-old kid,” said McLaughlin, who served as the president and CEO of the Tiger Woods Foundation from 1999 to 2014.
“The interesting thing was how little Earl offered up advice. I was expecting a very controlling, directive parent. … I was kind of surprised at how many decisions about his golf game Tiger made. Earl was focused on his own game.”
McLaughlin remembers asking Earl if Tiger would use sports psychologist Jay Brunza, Tiger’s caddie in amateur events, or Matthews in the Nissan Open. Earl’s reply showed that Tiger was in charge of his game.
“That’s Tiger’s deal. He makes that decision. You have to talk to him,” Earl said, according to McLauglin.
Tiger picked Matthews, who said Woods had the maturity of a 30-year-old.
“He knows how to focus, and how to let a bad shot go. His golf wisdom is very high,” Matthews said in 1992.
Woods got another chance to visit Riviera for the tournament’s media day. Defending champion Ted Schulz, who won his second PGA TOUR title with a one-stroke win over Jeff Sluman, also was there to promote the 1992 tournament.
Schulz gave a clinic on Riviera’s driving range as part of the day’s proceedings. Tiger hit balls nearby, seemingly uninterested in Schulz’s tips.
“I was thinking, ‘I wonder why he’s not listening to what I’m saying,’” Schulz said recently with a laugh. “Then I realized he was that good. He didn’t need to hear anything else. That’s what I remember more than anything. … Don’t make that sound negative. It was just kind of funny to me.”
Schulz also ran into the Woods family at the tournament hotel, he said. “His dad was very confident,” Schulz said. “It was the same thing at Milwaukee (when Tiger made his pro debut in 1996). It was unusual because it was like, this guy must know something nobody else knows or he’s just a proud dad. I think he knew something nobody else knew.”
Players’ reactions to Woods’ invitation varied greatly. Schulz admits that he didn’t know much about Woods’ accomplishments, while Billy Andrade said he was nervous to introduce himself to the teen.
“I had never heard of him. I knew he was a good player from the local area,” Schulz said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh wow, Tiger Woods is here playing this week.’ It was more, ‘They’re giving a local kid an exemption.’ The first I’d heard of him was during the media day, here’s this young kid who’s really good. There’s a lot of those who don’t turn into Tiger Woods.”
Unlike Schulz, Andrade was aware of Woods’ exploits.
“You hear so much about him, I was nervous just going up and saying, ‘Hi’ to him,” Andrade told the New York Times. “Just looking at his swing, the length he hits the ball and the way he carries himself, he’s just way ahead of any junior golfer I’ve ever seen.”
Davis Love III was one of the TOUR’s top players in 1992, but curiosity caused him to stop and watch the teenager hit balls that week.
“There was the buzz, of course,” Love said. “It was exciting. (He was) confident. He didn’t look out of place. And he had the power.”
David Ogrin told the New York Times: “The young man has a gift, a very special gift. If he knows what he has, he is going to be great.”
Willie Wood could relate to Woods as a former U.S. Junior Amateur champion.
“You just have to keep your fingers crossed," Wood, who won the 1977 U.S. Junior, said to the New York Times. "It’s more than just ability. You have to have the right things happen to you at the right times, and try to withstand the bad times.”
And then, of course, there was Sandy Lyle’s famed response to an inquiry about Tiger Woods. “I’ve never played there,” the Scot said.
When asked recently about any memorable interactions with the pros, Woods said he couldn’t recall any.
“I was more of a deer in headlights, just soaking up everything I possibly could that week, watching guys just warm up and hit shots on the range,” Woods told PGATOUR.COM. “And, also, to have perfect golf balls on the range, and they’re free to warm up, it was just a different world and a world I had never experienced.”
Woods, who turned 16 on Dec. 30, 1991, did have his driver’s license but didn’t receive a courtesy car for the week. That perk was less common than today. McLaughlin remembers that the tournament’s sponsor provided 100 cars to past champions and the top players from last year’s money list.
Tiger played in the pro-am, but as the “am” portion of the group. Gary Hallberg, who’d won two PGA TOUR titles, was the group’s pro. Actor Peter Falk, who starred in the TV show Columbo, also was in their group, according to Sports Illustrated. The amateurs, of course, teed off well ahead of the pros. Woods wasn’t going to, though.
“The amateur tees are way down the hill. We get on the hill and I say, ‘Hey Tiger, you get to play all the way down there,’” Hallberg said. “He said, ‘I’m playing back here.’ … He was cordial, real friendly, very focused. Every shot, he had a routine.
“Most good, young players tend to steer the ball, hence the sports psychologists come on the scene. There was no ‘guide’ in it. He was hitting it hard. That was really fun to watch, … that freedom.”
Sam Snead, a two-time winner at Riviera (1945, ’50), also watched Woods during the pro-am. Snead was on-hand to be honored by the tournament.
“At 16 years old, you don’t know how much better he can get or if he’s at his top right now,” Snead said. “You’ll just have to wait and see. He looks like he’s going to be a force on the TOUR.”
Snead was right. Woods trails only Snead on the list of all-time PGA TOUR victories, 79 to 82.
Sam Snead discusses Tiger Woods' debut
Tiger signed for Thursday’s 72 behind the 18th green. The large media contingent was waiting for him, but McLaughlin needed to move them away from the green. McLaughlin led the group, which the Los Angeles Times described as a “paparazzi-like crush of reporters,” to the driving range, some 500 yards away.
“It was a bit of a frenzy. We weren’t really ready for it,” McLaughlin said. “It was a huge crowd, but I’ll never forget that (longtime ESPN reporter) Dick Schaap is like elbowing me out of the way, trying to get in there and ask him a question. Tiger is looking at me like, ‘Hey, what are we doing?’ I didn’t know. I was a fairly young guy.”
Woods told PGATOUR.COM he’d “never experienced anything like it.”
“I was being interviewed all the way from the 18th green down to the driving range. It was an eye-opening experience. That’s for sure.”
Tiger Woods is hounded by a media mob
Bob Friend and Dicky Thompson played alongside Tiger for the first two rounds at Riviera. Friend knew he was in for a challenge because of the attention surrounding Tiger.
“There was a lot of buzz. I knew he was a very good, young player, the best junior in the world,” Friend said. “The first (reaction) is, ‘Oh man, this place is going to be a zoo.’ … People were all over the place.”
Friend estimates 3,000 fans followed the group. And, of course, there was a large media contingent that provided its own challenges. Friend remembers one run-in with a photographer on the front nine.
“Tiger is over there and leaning on his putter. It’s my turn to putt. My ball is just on the fringe, 15 feet away for birdie. I’m reading my putt, I’m down in my crouch,” Friend said. “This photographer steps right between me and my ball and starts shooting pictures of Tiger. I stood up, cleared my throat and said, ‘Um, we’re playing here.’”
McLaughlin had lunch with Tiger and Earl after the first round. Tiger didn’t show much emotion. He was more concerned with his food. His father wasn’t as stoic.
“That was the first time I saw how emotional Earl got,” McLaughlin said. “Tiger is just kind of eating. But Earl, he was actually emotional about that tournament and Tiger playing in his first event. I think there was a lot of pride, and it was interesting to see.
“The feeling I got from Tiger was that it was just kind of another round of golf, that he wasn’t really intimidated in the moment. I think he probably thought he could have played better. … Earl was more caught up in the moment of how history-making it really was.”
At the time, Tiger was thought to be youngest player to play in a PGA TOUR event. A few months later, it was discovered that 15-year-old Bob Panasik had played the 1957 Canadian Open.
A death threat for Tiger was left on McLaughlin’s voicemail after the first round. McLaughlin and L.A. County Sheriffs, who were working security for the event, told Earl as Tiger prepared for Friday’s tee time. Earl didn’t want Tiger to be told about the threat.
“In those days, you didn’t have cell phones, so I had a voicemail box. There was a death threat that had come in on the voicemail that had just said some derogatory statements,” McLaughlin said. “We had the L.A. County Sheriffs that were our on-course security team. We met with them. They minimized the threat. So we met with Earl that morning. Earl was like, ‘I don’t want Tiger to know.’ He was very emphatic about it, and we honored his wishes.”
Friend was impressed by his 36 holes with the teen phenom. He said Woods’ game was comparable to a collegiate All-American.
“He had a tremendous amount of poise for a 16-year-old kid,” Friend said. “He was tremendously confident. A lot of the same similarities you see now. He’s very quiet, very pensive on the golf course. We talked a little bit, but not much.
“He had a very professional ball flight. It was high, it was piercing. He could hit it both ways. His ball had a very touring professional sound and flight to it. … He didn’t appear nervous. My first U.S. Open was 1984 at Winged Foot when I was 20 years old. I was a nervous wreck. There was nothing there that shocked him.
“He was very much in his own bubble. We talked about school, ‘How do you like school? What’s your favorite subject?’ It was like playing with any other professional. Some guys talk. Some don’t. He wasn’t the least bit flummoxed by anything. He was very focused on what he was doing. He had the moxie of a guy who was a senior in college.”
And, of course, Friend is now tied to Tiger for eternity.
“My kids get a kick out of the fact that I’m the answer to a trivia question,” Friend said.
Woods’ second round finished Friday afternoon on Riviera’s ninth hole. He missed the green but chipped close to save par and shoot 75. His gallery didn’t diminish, even as it became apparent he’d fail to qualify for the weekend. Thousands of people circled the ninth green as he completed his round.
He clapped and pumped his fist as he acknowledged the cheers. He tossed his ball into the crowd after putting out, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Woods’ score of 5-over 147 would miss the cut by six shots. Friday also may have marked the end of a celebration that Woods broke out for his first TOUR event. Dubbed the “Tiger Paw,” it was a clawing gesture he performed after big putts.
“These were the best two days of my life,” he said after the round. “I’ve never had this much support before. After every shot, the people clapped. When I hit a bad shot, they still clapped. If I two-putted, they still clapped.”
He admitted there some challenges he was not accustomed to, though. They would become commonplace after he turned pro, though.
“It was hard to concentrate. There some distractions I’m not used to,” he told reporters. “I’m not used to playing when the gallery is moving. I never had a gallery before. There were security guards, and I’ve never had that before. And people talking in your backswing from a distance, you hear all that.”
Tiger Woods talks about his PGA TOUR debut
Although Tiger missed the cut, he returned to Riviera on Sunday. McLaughlin created a low amateur award to give him at the trophy ceremony. Tiger was one of two amateurs in the field. Mitch Voges, the 1991 U.S. Amateur champion from the L.A. suburb of Simi Valley, shot 77-71 to finish a shot behind Woods. Woods accepted the award alongside Fred Couples, who beat Love in a playoff.
“It was, ‘How can we get Tiger back (at the course)?’ We wanted him to feel good about his time that he had spent,” McLaughlin said. “It was pretty much an award we just came up with to kind of recognize the moment.”
Woods accepted the award alongside Couples on Riviera’s 18th green. Fans filled the natural amphitheater that surrounds the green.
“I wasn’t even playing and I was nervous,” Woods said about the ceremony.
He returned to a smaller stage the next day, as his Western High School golf team faced Gahr High School in a match at Dad Miller Golf Course in Anaheim, California. Those two days at Riviera had changed his life, though.
“Even though he is only 16, Tiger takes the long view of things,” Earl Woods said after Tiger missed the cut. “Our goal is long-term excellence at the highest echelon, not instant short-term gratification.”
They accomplished that mission, and that week in 1992 was the start of his historic TOUR career.