The Comeback Kid: Tiger Woods Wins 1994 U.S. Amateur

August 16, 2012

This story on Tiger Woods’ win at the 1994 U.S. Amateur first appeared in the Sept. 4, 1994, issue of Sports Illustrated.

On the 17th tee Tiger Woods never gave a second thought to the water surrounding the hole’s infamous island green, the landmark of the Tournament Players Club-Sawgrass Stadium course in Ponte Vedra, Fla. In his hands he first held a nine-iron, then exchanged it in favor of a pitching wedge with lead tape on the back. He had 139 yards to the stick, the wind at his back and the heart of a young lion thumping in his chest. His target? “The pin,” he would say later. “I was going directly at the pin.”

This was to be the defining moment for Woods in a U.S. Amateur comeback victory that bordered on the impossible: six down after 13 holes of the 36-hole match-play final, five down with 12 holes remaining, three down going to the final nine. His opponent was Oklahoma State junior Trip Kuehne (pronounced KEE-nee), a 22-year-old whose sister Kelli won the U.S. Junior Girls’ Championship in July. Kuehne shot a brilliant 66 in the morning round to open the gaping lead, but the 18-year-old Woods would not succumb. At the 16th Woods’s birdie evened the match for the first time in 33 holes.

At the par-3 17th, Woods’s fearless tee shot landed in a nearly impossible place—to the right of the flagstick, positioned far to the green’s right side. The ball first hit just four paces from the water’s edge. Woods’s mother, Kultida, watching on TV at home in Cypress, Calif., rolled off her bed and onto the Moor as the ball landed. “That boy almost gave me a heart attack.” she said. “All I kept saying was, ‘God, don’t let that ball go in the water.” That boy tried to kill me.”

The ball spun into the fringe, took a soft bounce into the rough and spun back onto the collar just past pin high and no more than three feet from the water. It seemed as if everybody watching were holding his breath—everybody except Woods, who had faith that a wedge was the right club and that his ball would somehow stay on the green. “You don’t see too many pros hit it right of that pin,” Kuehne said afterward, “It was a great gamble that paid off.”

The ensuing putt, which dropped for a birdie, was in the 14-foot range, but afterward Woods couldn’t remember the distance, the break or the grain. He couldn’t even remember hitting the putt or the fist-pumping celebration that followed, “I was in the zone,” he said.

He stayed in the zone on the par-4 18th, knocking a seven-iron 15 paces from the hole. When Kuehne sent his first putt four feet past the hole and lipped out coming back, it was over; the two friends shook hands, then hugged. Tiger’s father, Earl, a former Green Beret in Vietnam, dropped his walking stick and went onto the green. Father and son embraced for what seemed like minutes as applause rained down from the spectators standing on the stadium mounds.

“It’s an amazing feeling to come from that many down to beat a great player,” said Woods, who became the first player in the tournament’s history to come back from as many as six shots down to win. “It’s indescribable.”

There was more history made on this day, as Woods became the youngest winner of the oldest golf championship in the U.S. His name will go on the Havemayer Trophy alongside those of former Amateur champions like Jack Nicklaus, who is one of five golfers who have won the prestigious U.S. Amateur at the age of 19.

Moreover, Woods became the first black to win this tournament. “When Tiger won his first U.S. Junior [in 1991],” said Earl, “I said to him, ‘Son, you have done something no black person in the United States has ever done, and you will forever be a part of history.” But this is ungodly in its ramifications.”

For those who follow junior and amateur golf, what Woods did on the Stadium course comes as no surprise. The only three-time winner of the U.S. Junior title, he has been a golfing phenom since he was old enough to pick up a club. In this, his fourth try at the U.S. Amateur, Woods had more than a few close calls. In the round of 16 on Thursday, he was three down with five holes to play against 1986 U.S. Amateur champion Buddy Alexander, now the golf coach at Florida. At the island 17th, Woods needed, and got, a favorable bounce from his tee shot, which ultimately nestled in the rough two feet from the water. Woods had watched that ball in the air, hooking instead of fading, and, as he said later, “I nearly passed out.” Boosted by Alexander’s collapse—he failed to make par on any of the last six holes—Woods came back to win.

A couple of times during the tournament, Woods talked by phone to instructor Butch Harmon, who is also Greg Norman’s teacher. Woods and Harmon have worked together only twice in person, but they exchange videotapes and faxes on a regular basis. Harmon watched the Amateur from Anaheim, where he was attending the PGA West Coast Merchandise Show. As he saw Woods walk up the 18th fairway, there were tears in his eyes; he was happy not only for his pupil but also for what Woods’s success means for golf. “This young man is one of the best young players to come out of this country in a long, long time,” Harmon said. “That’s the good news. The bad news is that he has to live up to it now.”

Woods still has to register for the fall semester as a freshman at Stanford, where all but one member returns from the 1994 NCAA-championship golf team. But will Woods remain in school for four years, shunning the pro tour and earning his degree, as Phil Mickelson did after winning both the Amateur and NCAA titles in 1990 while at Arizona State? The millions Mickelson has made in endorsement contracts may seem like petty cash compared with the money that golf equipment and clothing companies are now likely to throw at a dream teen named Tiger, especially in the wake of this historic victory.

“We’re not parents who are out for the money,” Kultida says. “I always tell Tiger that golf is not a priority. Nobody can take an education away from you, especially a degree at Stanford.”

Nevertheless, it will not become any easier for Tiger, or his parents, to ignore the lure of the pro tour, especially now that he has been stamped with the undeniable look of a future superstar. Curiously, it was a victory that almost never happened. Woods’s 11th-hour heroics in the Amateur actually began three weeks ago. After Woods won the Western Amateur in Benton Harbor, Mich., he and his father dashed to Chicago for a flight to California, where Tiger had to qualify for the U.S. Amateur the next morning in Chino Hills. However, traffic on the way to O’Hare turned a 90-minute drive into a three-hour ordeal, and the Woodses missed their plane. They had to stand by for the last flight out, knowing that if Tiger didn’t get on that plane, he would not make his tee time—and would not be able to compete in the Amateur.

“I prayed, and my prayers were answered,” says Earl. “Thank God we got on that damn airplane.”