Roaring Ahead: The Story of Tiger Woods’ 1996 U.S. Amateur Win

August 16, 2012

This story on Tiger Woods’ win at the 1996 U.S. Amateur first appeared in the Sept. 2, 1996, issue of Sports Illustrated.

Long odds are still available on Tiger Woods’s achieving his goal of becoming the greatest golfer of all time. But after the breathtaking way in which he made history on Sunday by winning the most dramatic U.S. Amateur ever, would a wise man bet against him?

Even with his unprecedented three consecutive victories in the Amateur—the latest attained in a heart-stopping 38th-hole win at Pumpkin Ridge near Portland over an unyielding Steve Scott—the 20-year-old Woods is a long way from making a serious dent in the record of Jack Nicklaus, who has won 18 professional majors along with two Amateurs. But not even Nicklaus’s career got off to a better start and, Lord, does Woods know how to finish.

He has been winning national championships since he was 15, when he won the first of his three straight U.S. Junior titles. Now, after six consecutive years as a USGA champion, Woods has achieved the closure that will allow him to join Bobby Jones and Nicklaus in the record book as the greatest amateurs ever, while at the same time ending the debate over whether he should turn pro. As SI went to press, Woods was scheduled to make the announcement on Wednesday, the day before the opening round of this week’s Greater Milwaukee Open, where he would be playing—for pay now—on a sponsor’s exemption. Woods, who is the NCAA champion, will withdraw from Stanford on the eve of what would have been his junior year, with a promise to his parents that he will return to complete his degree sometime in the future.

Woods’s immediate plans are ambitious: He wants to qualify for the 1997 PGA Tour by earning enough money in the next two months to get himself into the top 125 on this year’s money list. His passport will be the seven sponsors’ exemptions annually allowed a player. After Milwaukee, Woods plans to play in the Canadian Open, the Quad City Classic, the B.C. Open, the Las Vegas Invitational, the Texas Open and the Disney/Oldsmobile Classic. If he wins a tournament, Woods will be exempt from having to qualify for two years; if he earns more than $150,000 over the remainder of the year, he should make the top 125. Should he fall short, he will have to qualify for the ’97 Tour by earning one of the 40 or so spots available at the dreaded PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, which he says he “doesn’t want to fool with.”

Woods had been seriously thinking about turning pro since a wondrous 66 in the second round of July’s British Open. “Something really clicked that day, like I had found a whole new style of playing,” he said on Sunday. “I finally understood the meaning of playing within myself. Ever since, the game has seemed a lot easier.”

His resolve had hardened after an uninspired performance at the Western Amateur last month, where he was beaten in the first round by 19-year-old Terry Noe, the 1994 Junior champion. “I was just flat, and that told me something,” Woods said.

On Sunday night Woods, too drained from the week’s 156 holes of competition for anything but pizza and a shower at the Portland home where he was staying, explained his decision. “I had intended to stay in school, play four years at Stanford and get my degree, but things change,” he said. “I didn’t know my game was going to progress to this point. It got harder to get motivated for college matches, and since I accomplished my goal of winning the NCAA, it was going to get harder still. Finally, winning the third Amateur in a row is a great way to go out. I always said I would know when it was time, and now is the time.”

Woods had sought out the opinions of several touring pros, including Fred Couples, Ernie Els, Curtis Strange and Greg Norman. They told him they believed he was ready physically and mentally for the Tour. When Woods’s father, Earl, saw that his son was serious about turning pro, he had opened the most high-powered bidding war ever for a golfer. A source close to Woods says that Woods’s endorsement deals with Nike (shoes and clothes) and Titleist (ball and clubs) will add up to at least $37 million over the next five years. Reportedly included in the ripple effect from Woods’s decision: He has accepted an invitation to play in the Skins Game on Thanksgiving weekend.

Nike cofounder and CEO Phil Knight drove up Woods’s price because he openly coveted the player for his cross-cultural appeal. With Nike’s Beaverton, Ore., headquarters only 15 miles from Pumpkin Ridge, Knight gladly put up with 90°-plus heat to watch all but one of Woods’s matches. Although he tried to keep a low profile by wearing the same kind of shirt that had been issued to tournament volunteers, Knight could hardly contain himself, spontaneously cheering Woods’s shots. When a reporter suggested that Woods might have the same charisma and flair for competition as Michael Jordan, who also endorses Nike products. Knight said, “You bet your ass. Same deal.” However, even the ultracompetitive Jordan once lost his taste for basketball because of the constant pressures of life in the fishbowl, and Woods will have to deal with the judgments, envy and expectations an unproven star making mega-dollars inevitably attracts.

“All the amateur titles Tiger has won won’t mean anything, and he’ll have to prove himself in a hard environment where there is no mercy,” says swing coach Butch Harmon, who worked with Woods all week at Pumpkin Ridge. “He’s got the intelligence and the tools to succeed very quickly. My only worry is that he’s losing two of the best years of his life to do something that is very demanding for a young person. Considering everything, he’s making the right decision, but he’s going to have to grow up faster than I’d like him to.”

It was a tribute to Woods’s powers of concentration that his impending announcement had no negative effect in Portland. “It just made him want it more,” said Earl Woods on Sunday night. On the many occasions last week when he was asked about when he intended to turn pro, Tiger simply said, “In the future.” In fact, while his purpose at Pumpkin Ridge was to make history, Woods put even that out of his mind. “I can’t afford to think about it,” he said. “I know from experience that that just causes anxiousness.” For all his strength and creativity, Woods proved last week that it is his ability to focus on the task at hand that is his greatest weapon as a player. Asked if he believed he was the toughest player, mentally, in the field, he answered without hesitation, “Yes, I do.”

And almost from the start, Woods both played and acted as if he were. At the Amateur the low 64 players after two rounds of medal play qualify for match play. Woods was the medalist, with a 69-67-136, and then he made a tough-minded decision by benching his caddie, sports psychologist Jay Brunza, who had carried his bag in each of his five previous USGA victories. He replaced Brunza with his best friend since boyhood, Bryon Bell. The change caused no consternation in the Woods camp. In fact, after Woods’s first-round victory over J.D. Manning, Woods, Bell and Brunza made a nostalgic visit to nearby Waverly Country Club, where Woods won his third Junior, in ’93. “That was inspiring, and Tiger really drew on that memory,” said Brunza, who cheerfully accepted being asked to give up his caddie duties. “Tiger decided I could better help him from outside the ropes. Bryon clubs Tiger better than I do. I trust Tiger’s judgment about what he needs to win.”

Woods had no significant problems until the championship’s 18-hole semifinal, when he fell 2 down after four holes to his Stanford teammate Joel Kribel. But after saving himself from going 3 down at the 10th with a stunning 50-yard up and down out of a bunker, Woods gained confidence while Kribel lost his. After making two birdies and an eagle on the back nine, Woods won 3 and 1. “All I have to do is stay strong up here,” he said, pointing to his head.

Doing that was no small task after he stumbled badly, going 4 down in the opening nine of the 36-hole final against Scott, a pugnacious 19-year-old who this week began his sophomore year at Florida. Nearly 15,000 fans—the biggest gallery at an Amateur since Jones chased down the Grand Slam at Merion in Philadelphia in 1930—saw Woods relentlessly light back from what grew into a five-hole deficit with 16 to play. In doing so, Woods was reprising his comeback from the same margin with 13 holes left in the ’94 Amateur final against Trip Kuehne.

This was no Faldoesque resurgence, dependent on the mistakes of the hunted. Built on huge drives and long putts, Woods’s push came against a surefooted opponent and carried the aura of a desperate fourth-quarter rally by Michael Jordan or John Elway, with virtuosity achieved with no margin for error.

Woods hit 28 of the last 29 greens in regulation. During the afternoon 18, when Scott shot what would have been a solid two-under-par 70 in medal play, Woods caught him with a bogeyless 65, the low round in a championship that had begun seven days earlier with 312 competitors. Tellingly, so focused was Woods on his prey that he had no idea until after the match that his score had been so low. “Given the circumstances,” he said, “this has to be the best I’ve ever played.”

Woods rallied by winning three straight holes beginning on the 21st. He closed to within a hole, but then Scott sank a spectacular flop shot on the 28th to go 2 up. Woods got the momentum back on the next hole, a 553-yard par-5, when he hit a 350-yard drive and a five-iron to within 45 feet of the cup and rolled in a curling downhill putt for an eagle that trumped Scott’s birdie. Scott again answered with a birdie on the 32nd, where Woods missed a six-footer to halve.

Two down with three left, Woods holed an eight-footer for a winning birdie on the 34th hole. Then on the 35th he put aside his frustration at pushing his approach 35 feet from the pin, narrowed his focus and drained his putt. “That’s a feeling I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” said Woods, who repeatedly uppercut the air after his ball had dropped.

The rivals halved the 36th hole, and on the first hole of sudden death, Scott missed an 18-footer for the championship. Finally, on the 38th hole, the 194-yard, par-3 10th, Woods hit a softly fading six-iron, a shot he and Harmon have been working to perfect for more than a year, to 12 feet. Scott pushed his five-iron into the greenside rough and chipped 11 feet past the pin. Woods missed his putt, but so did Scott, and when Woods drilled an 18-incher into the hole to take the lead for the first time, the championship was over. Tiger immediately was hugged first by his mother, Kultida, and then by his father. “All I kept telling myself was that I’ve been here before,” said Tiger. “The fortunate part was I had 36 holes.”

Scott, gracious in defeat, felt fortunate too. “That was probably the best Amateur final match ever,” he said, although he might get an argument from those who saw Nicklaus beat Charlie Coe at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs in 1959. “Just to be a part of it, I feel completely a winner.”

Now Woods has a new pro career ahead and a new set of goals. If he gets off to a good start and keeps coming through with the fast finishes that made him an amateur for the ages, perhaps the odds on catching Nicklaus will grow shorter.