This article originally appeared in the Oct. 14, 1996 issue of Sports Illustrated. For more classic issues and articles, check out the SI Vault.
Golf, as we know it, is over. It came to an end on a chamber-of-commerce Sunday evening in Las Vegas when Tiger Woods went for the upgrade: He’s not just a promising young Tour pro anymore, he’s an era.
Three straight U.S. Amateur titles and $60 million in endorsements before he laced up his first pair of you-know-whats provided a strong clue, but when Woods shot 64 in the final round of the Las Vegas Invitational and then beat Davis Love III–a big dog on the PGA Tour–on the first hole of a playoff at the TPC at Summerlin, the start of the new age became official. The game’s most heralded amateur since Bobby Jones has his maiden pro victory, and nothing is likely to be the same. Woods, at 20, is already the biggest name in the sport.
Why? Because he is as good as he looks. Start with the length. You thought John Daly was long? Woods is longer, and much straighter off the tee. In the light desert air of Las Vegas, the ball travels an extra 10%, but Woods’s 323-yard driving average for the week was 13 yards better than that of John Adams, who was second, and 38 yards better than the field’s. On Sunday, Woods, going for the green at the short par-4 15th, flew his tee shot into the back bunker, a carry of about 315 yards–with a three-wood.
Jack Nicklaus has long contended that someone would come along who could hit 30 yards past everyone else, much as he did decades ago, have a great short game and dominate the sport. That someone could be Woods. He’s a good putter who gets better in the clutch, in the mold of Nicklaus and Lee Trevino. Whenever Nicklaus had to make a 10- or 20-footer, he did. Woods does, too. He did it on Sunday when he ran in a 30-footer for birdie at the 11th, the key hole of his round. Woods had driven into a fairway bunker and appeared to be in trouble, yet he was able to muscle a sand wedge onto the front of the green, and his long putt never wavered. Watching, you somehow knew the ball was going to drop.
Woods has all the extras, starting with the instantly recognizable nickname. He smiles on the course and looks as if he’s having fun. He emotes, whether it’s punching the air with an uppercut, last seen at the Amateur, or straight-arming a putt into the hole.
In Las Vegas everything added up to a victory that was part incredible, part inevitable. “We were afraid he was going to win before he got here,” said Jim Cook, the tournament director, whose event is now linked forever with the kid.
Woods’s father, Earl, called the shot. After Tiger had made a quadruple-bogey 8 and four-putted while blowing his lead in the final round of last month’s Quad City Classic, his third event as a pro, Earl told friends that the big breakthrough would come in Las Vegas. Nonetheless Earl decided to stay home in Cypress, Calif., and watch on TV.
Woods played like a man among boys during his two years at Stanford and throughout his unparalleled reign as an amateur. So far the Tour hasn’t been any different. Exhausted from the 36-hole days at the U.S. Amateur, Woods tied for 60th in his debut in the Greater Milwaukee Open and has improved every week–11th, fifth, third and first–for the fastest start since Michael Johnson.
“Am I surprised?” said Butch Harmon, Woods’s instructor. “I’m surprised it took this long. I’m one of the few people who really knew how good he is. For him, to be able to just play golf was the key. He didn’t have to go to school or do anything else.” Harmon received the first Tiger hug on Summerlin’s 18th green after Love missed a six-footer to end the playoff.
Woods wasn’t surprised by the win, either. “It should’ve come at Quad City,” he said. “I learned a lot from that.” There was no snowman or four-jack this time. Yet after a disappointing 70 in the first round, Woods seemed to have as much chance of winning as Bob Dole. The Tour record for a 72-hole tournament is 27 under par, set by Mike Souchak in 1955. Woods played the last 72 holes of this 90-hole event in 26 under. A second-round 63 got him back in the picture. He followed with 68 and 67 before Sunday’s 64.
Woods and Love found it odd that they met in the playoff. They had played a nine-hole practice round at the Buick Challenge the week before, and Woods told Love that it would be cool to go head-to-head down the stretch someday. “When I saw his name on the board, I thought, He got what he wanted,” said Love.
Woods, who started the final round in a five-way tie for seventh, is a dangerous golfer. Difficult situations bring out the best in him. He came from 5 down in two of his championship matches in the Amateur. He came from four shots back at Summerlin, and he did it with a limp. Woods aggravated a groin injury, a hangover from the Amateur, during Friday’s round at the Desert Inn. On Sunday he grimaced in pain and held his left leg after hitting a hard two-iron from an uphill lie on the 13th fairway.
Despite the victory–which brings a two-year exemption, gets him into next year’s Masters and lifts him to 40th on the money list with $437,194–and the injury, Woods says he will play in this week’s Texas Open. Although he has a bona fide excuse, he doesn’t want to pull out and cause a flap similar to the one that followed his withdrawal two weeks ago from the Buick Challenge and the subsequently canceled Fred Haskins Award dinner. He was criticized roundly by other pros. Love had one of the harshest comments, saying, “Everybody’s been telling him how great he is. I guess he’s starting to believe it.” Last week Woods attempted to make amends by sending letters of apology to the 200 people who had planned to attend the Haskins dinner.
The incident didn’t diminish interest in Woods, who had huge galleries all week. “We had 40 people walking with us, and I knew 20 of them,” said Love, who was paired on Sunday with Ronnie Black. “I think Tiger got about 75 percent of the crowd, Fred Couples got 20 percent, and we got the other five percent–and we were playing in the final group.”
Woods is big and getting bigger. “He has a chance to win every single week he plays–every single week,” said Paul Goydos, the winner of this year’s Bay Hill Invitational. “This is the third straight week he had a chance to win. How many guys do that? And how many guys do that when they’re 20?”
A player like Woods comes along once in a lifetime. He aims high, probably higher than we know. Before Las Vegas, before he got within range of his stated goal of making the top 125 on the money list and earning an exemption for next year, Woods asked Love if he might make the ’97 Ryder Cup team if he won three or four times before next August. “He’s not playing for the money,” Love said on Sunday. “He never thought, I have to make another one hundred and some thousand dollars to make the top 125. He’s trying to win. He thinks about winning and nothing else. I like the way he thinks. We were all trying to prolong the inevitable. We knew he was going to win. I just didn’t want it to be today. Everybody better watch out: He’s going to be a force.”
For now, he’s just a kid–a very talented kid who after his victory on Sunday was looking forward to returning to Las Vegas in a year, when he’ll be 21. “I’ll be legal,” Woods said, smiling. “I can actually do some stuff around here.”
He already has. Golf may never be the same.