Remembering Tiger Woods’ first win in Las VegasWoods earned the first of his record-tying 82 victories in 1996
October 03, 2021
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Tiger Woods wins 1996 Las Vegas Invitational
An anonymous veteran and inclement weather thwarted Tiger Woods’ first two opportunities to win on the PGA TOUR.
He wouldn’t be stopped in Las Vegas, however, overcoming a muscle strain and an indifferent opening round to beat one of the TOUR’s top players. This year’s Shriners Children’s Open is being played at TPC Summerlin 25 years after Woods earned his first PGA TOUR title there.
The tournament was 90 holes back then, and Woods needed a 91st to beat Davis Love III after they tied at 27 under par. The mano-a-mano nature of the sudden-death playoff took Woods back to his amateur days – which had ended just a few weeks earlier after his third consecutive U.S. Amateur victory.
Woods hit a 9-iron to 20 feet on the first hole of sudden-death, two-putted for par and could only watch from the side of the green as Love’s 8-foot par putt slid by the hole. No one knew that 81 more wins would follow, tying Woods with Sam Snead for the most in PGA TOUR history. At the time, Woods was in the midst of a furious sprint to simply earn his playing privileges for the following season.
“It’s really hard to describe the feeling,” Woods told ESPN’s Andy North, who called the win golf’s biggest story since Jack Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters. “It’s been a hard struggle all the way, and then I got lucky and won it in the end.”
Woods arrived in Las Vegas still outside the all-important top 125 on the money list with just three events remaining. By the end of the week, he’d earned a two-year exemption on TOUR and invitations to the following year’s Sentry Tournament of Champions and Masters, both of which he won.
The win in Las Vegas was worth $297,000. Woods earned a reported $60 million the moment he turned pro, but his first winner's check was still a momentous sum for a 20-year-old who left Stanford after two years and wasn’t old enough to gamble in Las Vegas’ casinos. Woods stayed in a penthouse at the MGM Grand, John Strege wrote in his biography "Tiger," but also had to borrow $20 from his mother, Kultida, to buy a Big Mac and fries.
At the trophy ceremony, the master of ceremonies tried to make light of Woods’ status as a young superstar who’d just earned a princely sum.
“I was thinking of something clever to say,” longtime Las Vegas golf historian Jack Sheehan told the Las Vegas Review-Journal five years ago. “So we get to the ceremony and I said, ‘How about a round of applause for the wealthiest college dropout?’ … He comes over to me and whispers in my ear, ‘I think Bill Gates got me on that one.’”Tiger Woods laughs during the trophy ceremony after his first PGA TOUR win. (J.D. Cuban/Allsport)
The Associated Press’ Tim Dahlberg remembers returning from Love’s post-playoff press conference to find Woods sitting at his desk, reading over the story that would soon be released to papers around the world.
“I said to Tiger, ‘Anything you like?’ Dahlberg told the Review-Journal, “and he pointed to the number in the story (the $297,000) and said, ‘I like that.’”
Woods has admitted not knowing where all 82 of his PGA TOUR trophies are but the oversized check from his victory in Las Vegas still hangs in his office. The well-timed win also fulfilled a goal Woods had expressed just a week earlier.
“He said, ‘One of my goals is to beat you down the stretch,’” Love recently told PGATOUR.COM. “I said, ‘Well that’s great kid. I hope you get the chance.’ Well, (a week) later it was a playoff and I didn’t finish him off. I always say I helped create the monster that beat us so many times over the years.”
The two shared a swing coach in Butch Harmon and were frequent practice-round partners. Love was 32 when Woods turned pro and owned 10 PGA TOUR titles.
The 1996 Shriners was Woods’ fifth PGA TOUR start after he turned pro by famously saying, “Hello, world,” in Milwaukee. He steadily improved with each start, from a T60 in his debut to an 11th-place finish in Canada before back-to-back top-5s at the Quad City Classic (now known as the John Deere Classic) and B.C. Open.
Woods is golf’s greatest closer but he couldn’t convert the first 54-hole lead of his career. One shot ahead entering the final round in the Quad Cities, Woods made a quad and a double-bogey in a four-hole stretch on the front nine. The big numbers opened the door for Ed Fiori, 43, to win his fourth PGA TOUR title and first since 1982. Woods was in third place the following week before rain canceled the B.C. Open’s final round.
Citing fatigue, he withdrew from the following week’s Buick Challenge, where he was scheduled to receive the Haskins Award as college golf’s top player. He returned to his new home in Orlando and didn’t touch a club for several days before departing for Las Vegas.
“My mind has been carrying me and you can only do that so long before your mind gets tired,” Woods said in his pre-tournament interview in Las Vegas. “That’s what happened to me.”
He started the tournament with a pedestrian 70 that left him eight shots off the lead and in a tie for 97th. A second-round 63, the low round of his nascent career, had him on the cusp of the top 10. “I’m still in the hunt, kind of,” he said. “I need a few more of these.”
He aggravated a groin injury, first suffered at the U.S. Amateur, during Friday's third round, however. He limped on the final few holes and spent much of that night receiving treatment for the injury. On Saturday, he ducked into the clubhouse to receive treatment at the turn and after finishing his round.
“All the golf I’ve been playing, I never gave it a chance to heal,” said Woods, who had his groin wrapped for the final round. He said the injury may prevent him from playing in the next two events.
He started Sunday four shots behind leader Ronnie Black, who looked to reprise Fiori’s role in Woods’ story. Black had last won 12 years earlier and was battling for his TOUR card, arriving in Las Vegas at No. 123 on the money list after just one top-10.
Woods birdied Sunday’s opening hole, then made his fourth eagle of the week on the third hole. He reached the par-5 ninth hole in two with a 6-iron (from 230 yards) while playing partner Keith Fergus hit two drivers just to roll his ball into a bunker short of the green.
“He was hitting some shots that you weren’t accustomed to seeing,” Fergus told GolfChannel.com. “At that stage, he was the best ball-striker I’d ever seen.”
The birdie put Woods at 23 under par, and in the midst of a crowded race for the top spot. He made a 35-foot birdie putt at 11 that pulled him within one of the lead, which Love lost after taking an unplayable lie when his approach to No. 10 sailed over the green.
Woods grimaced and grabbed his groin after reaching the par-5 13th in two with a 2-iron. It was an opportunity for Woods to display the toughness that he prides himself on.
“It was hurting all the way in,” Woods said of the injury, “but being the son of a former Green Beret, I know those guys can suck it up. A strain is nothing.”
He made a 6-foot birdie putt on 13 to tie the lead. A 12-footer for birdie on the next hole put Woods alone atop the leaderboard. ESPN commentator Frank Beard compared the scene to the enthusiastic galleries that once followed Arnold Palmer.
“They are absolutely going crazy running down the fairways,” Beard said.
Woods made an easy birdie on the par-5 16th – he played TPC Summerlin’s four par-5s in 5 under in the final round – before parring the final two holes.
“Just do it? He might have just done it,” North said after Woods tapped in on 18 for a final-round 64. Woods declined an invitation to watch the finish of Love's round from ESPN's broadcast booth.
"Don't celebrate yet, and don't talk to the media," Harmon recalled saying in his book, "The Pro." "You're probably going to be in a playoff with Davis Love III."
Harmon was correct. Love recovered from the miscue at No. 10 by making birdie on the next hole and going eagle-birdie on the drivable, par-4 15th and the reachable 16th. Harmon and Woods headed to the driving range to prepare for the potential playoff. Woods hit several cut 3-woods off the practice tee, and it took a moment for Harmon to realize why.
"If it came to a playoff, he wanted his opening tee shot to be in the fairway, but behind Davis' ball," Harmon wrote. "That would allow him to play first. If he struck the ball close to the hole, he could get the gallery into it and shift the momentum his way.
"It was a masterful strategy, one that showed a level of maturity I could never have imagined from a 20-year-old."
Woods' strategy worked to perfection. His tee shot came to rest just a few yards behind Love's. Woods' approach safely found the green on the water-guarded hole. Love, hitting second, pulled his approach shot into a bunker long and left of the green. When he couldn't get up-and-down, it was all over.
“We all knew he was going to win, but I didn’t want it to be today,” Love said. “We know how good he is. We know he’s the next force on TOUR.”
He was, indeed, and it all started 25 years ago in Las Vegas.Tiger Woods poses with his mom Kultida Woods and the trophy after his first TOUR win. (J.D. Cuban/Allsport)