King in the North
Born and raised in Southern California, Tiger Woods’ career has flourished in his trips upstate
August 04, 2020
By Jim McCabe, PGATOUR.COM
Given the enormity of his success, there is an anniversary of a memorable occasion nearly every time Tiger Woods tees it up.
This week’s 102nd PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco will be no exception. Every ride into work will take Woods past Lake Merced Golf Club, which in turn could spark a sense of warmth. After all, it was 30 years ago when Woods, then a “willowy 5-foot-9, 119 pounds,” according to Mark Soltau’s reporting in the San Francisco Examiner, strutted his stuff in the USGA Junior Amateur.
Refusing to pick on kids his own age, the 14-year-old Woods shot 77-77 to qualify, then dispatched a pair of 17-year-olds on the first day of match play. For good measure, he won a third-round match against an older kid by the overwhelming count of 7 and 6. Then, in the quarterfinals, Woods ousted a young man by the name of Notah Begay, who was six weeks shy of his 18th birthday and four years away from being Woods’ mentor at Stanford.
Begay bemoaned crucial three-putts that cost him the match but told Soltau, “He played good. You have to give him credit.”
Oh, how the credit has continued to flow like Niagara Falls in Woods’ incomparable career, his athletic genius unquestioned, his own personal record book thicker than USGA rough. True, he did not win that 1990 U.S. Junior Amateur (he was eliminated, 3 and 2, in the semifinals by the medalist, Dennis Hillman), but that doesn’t diminish the sense of a homecoming Woods can feel when passing Lake Merced GC this week.
Homecoming? In Daly City, which is about 400 miles north of Cypress, where Woods is from?
Homecoming? In Northern California, which might be within the state borders, but is another galaxy for a kid from Southern California?
Yes, Lake Merced and TPC Harding Park, for that matter, buffer the homecoming layer, for they are pieces to a Northern California landscape that has a special place in the Woods saga. He was born and raised down south where the sun shines brilliantly; but in many ways the son shined up north where summer is confused with winter.
“I think I’m more mature than the normal 14-year-old,” Woods told Soltau after he whipped those 17-year-olds – Travis Williams and Brian Johnson – on the same day at Lake Merced. “The difference that separates me from the other kids is I can focus a lot faster.”
Spread Woods’ magical life out on a table, study the highlights and the key notes, pick and choose your favorite memories, and many of them will be rooted in Northern California.
There would be future visits in a variety of settings – the California State Amateur, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the U.S. Open – but it is that first visit that leaves an indelible impression.
“I played (Pebble) when I was 13,” Tiger recalled. “I just remember coming out here and finding the golf course so long. The golf course has always had a special place in my heart. One, for its pristine beauty and another for the mystique behind Pebble Beach.”
Five years later, Woods had room in his hectic schedule, so he entered his only California State Amateur, knowing it afforded him the chance to play Pebble. Woods (73-70) finished second in qualifying, and rolled, 7 and 6, in his first match. In Round 2, Woods won by 3 and 2 over Kevin Riley, whose brother, Chris, would become a PGA TOUR member and Woods’ Ryder Cup partner in 2004.
Woods, 18, prevailed in his quarterfinal match, but then was upset in the semifinals by Ed Cuff, a perennially strong amateur in those years. Woods led by one at the turn, then doubled his lead with a win at the 10th hole. He wouldn’t win another hole as Cuff took the 11th with a par, the 15th with a birdie, then the 16th when Woods three-putted for bogey.
A Woods did win that tournament – Steve Woods – but Tiger would cash in at Pebble a few years later.
In November of 1993, Woods made it official – he would accept a scholarship at Stanford. “When you’re lucky enough to sign the best junior player who has ever lived, you have a star in your midst,” said Stanford golf coach Wally Goodwin.
While Woods finished his duties at Western High School in 1993-94, Stanford won the NCAA Championship, led by Begay and Casey Martin. Conventional wisdom suggested that adding Woods to a 1994-95 team that would return Begay and Martin made the Cardinal a lock to repeat.
It didn’t play out that way, though in no way was Woods’ freshman year a bust. Quite the contrary.
“By the end of the year, he was a rock star,” said Soltau, who as the golf writer for the Examiner made Woods and Stanford golf a big part of his beat.
“The Stanford Invitational (at Stanford GC), there would be 1,000 people watching him. They had to restrict parking and put up gallery ropes for his group. He sort of ignited the Bay Area golf scene and they came out of the woodwork to see him play.
“People here realized what he was destined for.”
Yet, Soltau got to know the personal side of Woods and came to appreciate how Stanford helped him mature. For years, Woods had traveled the country with his father, Earl, his uncanny string of amateur golf success forged with his father standing by his side.
“But he drove his own car up (to start college at Stanford) and checked into the dorms. He was off and running, but for the first time in his life he was on his own,” said Soltau.
Admittedly an introvert, Woods got to know kids who could build their own computers or professors who had held lofty positions in government. Woods understood he had special skills, too, but appreciated that when he left the golf course, he wasn’t the center of attention, that he was surrounded by uniquely special people.
“I think that was very important to him,” said Soltau.
So was the structure demanded by Goodwin and Stanford administrators.
“He told me once, ‘In high school, I set the curve; here, I follow it.’ ”
With tee times at Pebble Beach an enticing prize, Woods was 16 when he returned to Lake Merced on June 8, 1992, for a U.S. Open qualifier. A handful of spots were available, but there were only two storylines for golf writers – Woods and 45-year-old Johnny Miller.
Turns out, neither would punch his ticket to Pebble Beach for a U.S. Open that was eventually won by Tom Kite.
While Woods (77-74) bemoaned his brutal effort on the greens – “If I would have putted well, I’d have made it with no problem,” he told Soltau – he impressed his playing competitor.
“He’s really a nice kid. He’s got a lot of talent and he trusts what he has,” said Don Levin, a onetime PGA TOUR player and father of PGA TOUR member Spencer Levin. “He’s never leery over a shot.”
As for Miller, who shot 77-77: “I’m retired, so what the heck. I passed the baton to the young people about four years ago.”
Four years after being ousted by Woods in that Junior Amateur, Begay figured he had the upper hand. He was a fifth-year senior at Stanford and could impart control over the freshmen. Woods found himself loading clubs onto the team bus and off the carousel at the airport.
“The guys were a little in awe of Tiger,” Begay told ESPN a few years ago. “(But) I kind of went out of my way to remind the guys Tiger was getting no preferential treatment. He was sleeping on the rollaway and carrying our bags.”
Woods didn’t appreciate it and asked Begay how it could be changed. Win a tournament, he was told.
Mission accomplished with the sort of mystique Woods would become famous for – he won the first collegiate tournament in which he played, the William Tucker Invitational in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Goodbye valet, hello stardom.
In two years, Woods would win 11 of 26 tournaments, culminated by the NCAA Championship in the spring of 1996. While that’s the most notable of his collegiate triumphs, it speaks to his comfort zone in Northern California that three wins came in home games at Stanford GC, including an overpowering effort in the NCAA West Regional when he delighted big crowds.
“The thing I didn’t realize is, they’re pulling for you just as much as Tiger,” said then-Pepperdine star Michael Walton. “We’re kind of the underdog. That’s why Tiger’s so great for the game. He’s bringing all the people out.”
Overwhelmed at 13, upset at 17, things were different when Woods, 21, returned to Pebble Beach in 1997, his first full year on the PGA TOUR. Ten shots back and tied for 67th through two rounds of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Woods made 18 birdies against a lone bogey to shoot 63-64 on the weekend at Pebble.
He finished tied for second with David Duval, both one off Mark O’Meara’s winning score.
Three years later, there were two trips to Pebble and the sweetness was multiplied by two. In February, he rallied from seven back with seven holes to play to win the AT&T Pebble Beach. Four months later, Woods authored what might be the closest anyone has come to playing perfect golf – an historic 12-stroke victory in the first of his three U.S. Open wins.
The latter remains an awe-inspiring memory; the former still generates a sense of marvel, if you could consider that for the first three rounds that year, Woods and O’Meara played behind Tommy Smothers. Yes, they got to see the yo-yo act for about five-to-six hours each day, at least until an anonymous complaint was filed with tournament officials.
Smothers agreed to tone down the act, which he liked to perform at nearly every green.
“I don’t think Tiger is a yo-yo fan,” Smother told reporters.
Woods chose diplomacy.
“Well, it was . . . It’s been interesting, I guess,” he said. “He’s having a good time and that’s fine.”
In five tries at Pebble Beach since 2000, Woods has been T-13, T-12, T-15 in the AT&T and T-4 and T-21 in U.S. Opens in 2010 and 2019, respectively.
It’s hard to imagine that any college experience could hit speedbumps thanks to meeting Mikhail Baryshnikov and Arnold Palmer. But that was the case for Woods, who was scrutinized by the NCAA.
The violation with Palmer in the fall of 1995 centered on a $25 bill for lunch at restaurant in Napa Valley. Woods had driven up from Stanford “to pick my brain about a wide-range of golf topics,” said Palmer, who paid the tab.
Oh, oh. That could have been viewed as accepting money from an equipment manufacturer, as Palmer owned his line of clubs. To spare an NCAA inquiry, Woods agreed to write Palmer a $25 check.
The year before, Woods had accepted two tickets to see Baryshnikov at DeAnza College in Cupertino. The NCAA frowned on that, too, but only issued a warning.
Woods finishes off a perfect week at the 2009 Presidents Cup
The well-chronicled success at Pebble Beach is a huge part of the Woods folklore, but he has shown plenty of shine at other Northern California sites.
In two U.S. Opens at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, Woods has finished T-18 (1998) and T-21 (2012). At the latter, Woods was in a three-way tie for the lead through 36 holes but played the first 24 holes on the weekend in 11-over and tumbled with scores of 75-73.
At famed Pasatiempo in the spring of 1996, Woods was in contention to win the U.S. Collegiate before being caught, then passed by Aaron Oberholser. The San Jose State star served Woods a little of his own medicine by holing a 120-yard approach to eagle the 17th, then converting a deft up-and-down from a bunker on 18.
When Woods came from behind to shoot a final-round 67 and get into a playoff with John Daly for the WGC-American Express Championship at Harding Park in 2005, “it made the PGA TOUR feel like a rock concert,” wrote Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press, “the delirium reaching such decibels that Woods felt his eardrums pounding.”
Woods would win that slugfest on the second extra hole.
Four years later, Woods was back at TPC Harding Park, this time a member of the U.S. Team at the Presidents Cup. Not only did he win all five of his matches – his most successful performance in 17 appearances in either the Presidents or Ryder Cup – but he delivered the clinching point with a 6 and 5 win over Y.E. Yang.
Two months earlier, Woods had blown his first 54-hole lead in a major, losing to Yang at the PGA Championship. “He got me there,” Woods said, “and I figured I could get him here.”
So this week, when Tiger returns to TPC Harding Park for the PGA Championship, there are several positive memories to fall back on.
You might even suggest it will feel like a homecoming.