Where it all began for Tiger Woods
January 24, 2018
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
Tiger Woods' top 20 shots at Torrey Pines (non-majors)
Before Tiger Woods won seven times in 16 starts at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, before he won eight times in 17 starts as a professional (2008 U.S. Open), there was the 1991 Junior World.
The establishing scene for the drama to come, the tournament would establish certain themes that would come up again and again at Torrey, first among them Woods’ jaw-dropping mastery but also the unforced errors by those in his midst.
“He was just a scrawny kid,” said Kevin Riley, older brother to ’91 Junior World runner-up Chris. “We all knew who Tiger Woods was because he won all the Junior Worlds, but that had been on the shorter courses, and he didn’t get to show off his length.”
Not so for his first Junior World at Torrey.
Kevin, who dabbled on the Web.com Tour and is now a caddie at Shadow Creek in Las Vegas, walked all 18 holes as the 6-foot, 137-pound Woods overtook the older Chris Riley, 17, on the back nine. Woods carded a final-round 69 to become the first 15-year-old to win the 15-17 age division, picking up his sixth Junior World title overall.
No one was surprised, least of all Woods.
“I have no idea,” he told the Los Angeles Times when asked how many tournaments he had won. “I quit counting after 11-and-under. I had 110 trophies. I threw them all into the garage.”
It was July 19, 1991. Steffi Graf and Michael Stich had just won Wimbledon, Ian Baker-Finch was two days away from winning his first and only major title at The Open Championship, and Tiger was still Eldrick, his otherworldly talent still not yet a matter of public record.
“I remember Kevin’s first comment when he came home,” says Mike Riley, Chris and Kevin’s father, who was working and did not attend the final round of the ’91 Junior World. “It stuck with me forever. He said, ‘Dad, that guy is really long.’”
Chris Riley birdied the 11th hole at Torrey, which gave him a one-shot lead, but as is so often the case with Woods, one shot changed everything.
It happened at the long, par-4 12th hole, and Woods’ thunderous drive left him only a 7-iron into the green. Riley, standing in the fairway with a wood in his hands, had an unpleasant epiphany. Woods was so much longer than Riley, and longer than 16-year-old Mark Worthington, the third member of their group, that this was not a David-versus-Goliath story. It was a mismatch.
“He hit it over 300 and was like 50 yards ahead of us,” says Riley, who won once on TOUR, played in the 2004 Ryder Cup, and last year became the men’s golf coach at the University of San Diego. “He just blew us away from there. Even at 15 he was a man amongst boys.”
For Worthington, now a realtor in the Seattle area, that fact came to light at Torrey South’s par-5 sixth hole, a sweeping dogleg right where Woods took an aggressive line off the tee. “He hit it farther right than I thought would be any good,” Worthington says. “I was thinking he would be in the rough, which was pretty severe, but he had a mid-iron into the green.
“I remember he hit it really, really long,” Worthington adds. “I was longer than most, but he had a different ball flight. His ball went way, way higher than anybody had ever seen.”
Worthington, the third-round leader, shot a final-round 78, but he would remember his first big national tournament, and flying from Seattle to San Diego with him mom, Ruth. He met Glen Albaugh, who would become his coach at the University of the Pacific, and he met Woods, whom he had previously seen only in Sports Illustrated.
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They would clash again. Worthington still talks about the Pacific Northwest Men’s Amateur at Royal Oaks in Oregon, where Woods hit a 4-iron straight up into the air and over a bank of trees on a par-5. The ball’s meteoric rise and towering trajectory seemed to defy physics.
“He hit this thing like 7 feet from the hole,” says Worthington, who would lose their match and play in a handful of Web.com Tour events in his pro career. He chuckles at the memory.
Riley laughs, too, when he talks about Woods, who would become a teammate not just in the Canon Cup and Walker Cup but also the Ryder Cup. (They would team up to beat Darren Clarke and Ian Poulter at Oakland Hills in 2004, one of the few U.S. highlights that week.) The first time they met, Riley was 10, Woods was 8, and with Coke-bottle glasses. It was the Junior World, again, this time at Presidio Hills, and, well, Woods won that one, too.
“Chris had a one-stroke lead going into the last hole but snap-hooked it into the parking lot,” Kevin Riley says. He cracks up laughing. “That was the first time we heard of Tiger Woods!”
It would be the first of several slipups by those endeavoring to beat Woods in San Diego. Tom Lehman bogeyed the last two holes and lost to him in 2005, Woods’ third win at Torrey and 41st on TOUR. Jose Maria Olazabal missed a short putt in ’06, Woods’ 47th TOUR win.
Like Riley and Worthington, they can smile if not laugh now. There’s no shame in falling to arguably the greatest player of all time, and life goes on. Boys become dads, the sting of losing subsides, and the Woods highlight reel is all anyone really remembers, anyway.
“He always beat me,” Chris Riley says. “He was the standard. I never quite got to that level.”
“I never could figure out how he stayed on 18 at Torrey every time,” he adds. “I’d ask him about it and he’d say, ‘Yeah, we’re splurging.’ That was before the Lodge, so it was kind of an older hotel, but back in ’91 that was high dollar. Every year, right on 18 on the South Course.”
It was probably just a matter of convenience, but maybe someone had a premonition that this prime piece of California real estate would become Tiger Woods’ home away from home.