A 20 year old Tiger Woods stood to the side of the 18th green at TPC Summerlin as Davis Love III, one of the game’s best players at the time, stroked an 8 foot putt for par to extend the sudden death playoff. The putt slid by the hole and Tiger won his first of 82 PGA Tour victories. This win meant so many things. So many things for the game; so many things for Tiger; so many things for us.
This week marks the 25th anniversary of this historical win. A few weeks prior, Tiger turned pro after winning his 3rd consecutive US Amateur Championship. He signed a $60 million dollar Nike contract but was playing on sponsor’s exemptions in trying to finish inside the top-125 on the money list to secure his tour card for 1997. This victory earned him a 2-year tour exemption and entry into the Masters and the season opening Sentry Tournament of Champions (then it was called the Mercedes Championship), which he won both. Tiger honestly doesn’t know where all 82 of his winning trophies are but he does still have the giant $297,000 winning check from his first win in Vegas hanging in his home office. He was 20 years old at the time and couldn’t gamble, but did stay in the MGM penthouse for the week. He also had to borrow $20 from his mom for some McDonalds.
A month before Vegas, Tiger muttered the famous words “Hello World” at his press conference in Milwaukee. But he told Davis Love III hello the week before they found themselves in a playoff. Both players shared the same swing coach at the time, Butch Harmon. Woods told Love a goal of his was to beat him down the stretch of a tournament. “That’s great, kid. I hope you get the chance” responded Love. That chance happened much quicker than I assume one of them anticipated.
Woods opened his pro career with a T-60 in Milwaukee, which included a hole-in-one. He then finished 11th in Canada before back-to-back top 5’s at the Quad City Classic and BC Open. Tiger then took the next week off to go receive the Haskins Award for college golf’s top player. During this break he didn’t touch a club. Tiger was dealing with his first bout of mental and physical fatigue as a grinding tour pro trying to get his PGA Tour card. He’d deal with fatigue throughout his career, sure. But grinding for a tour card lasted all but 5 weeks for Mr. Woods. Something he’d never have to think about again.
In these days the Las Vegas Invitational was 5 rounds, 90 holes. Tiger opened with a ho-hum 70 and ate dinner 8 shots off the lead. He then fired a 63 in the 2nd round and climbed almost 90 spots up the board. During the round he aggravated a groin injury that he suffered during the US Am. He limped off the course and into the trainer’s room for treatments at the turn and after the last hole. Tiger limping around the course while nursing an injury? That’s something we would get used to seeing all too often in the years to come. It ended up being a strain and Woods said it hurt all week. On Sunday he started the final round 4 shots back. He made his 4th eagle of the week on #3 after hitting the green in 2 from 230 yards with a 6-iron. After an incredibly struck 2-iron to also reach the par-5 13th in two, playing partner Keith Fergus was completely comfortable and confident saying that Tiger was the best ball striker he’d ever seen.
Tiger made par on his last 2 holes to close with a 64. Butch Harmon advised him to not celebrate yet nor talk to the media. “You’re probably gonna be in a playoff with Davis.” Butchie was right. An hour later when Love failed to save par, it was all over. But really it had just begun. “We all knew it was only a matter of time before he won. I just didn’t want it to be today,” said Love after the playoff. It didn’t take long for Tiger to validate win #1. Two weeks later he won his 2nd tournament at Disney. Hello World.
Pro’s tid-bit I remember watching this event as a 14-year old Tiger and golf obsessed kid. But a weird thing I remember the most was that Davis Love III was still playing a persimmon driver. Yes, a wooden driver. Even in 1996 I thought that was odd and an antique. In fact, Love and Justin Leonard were among the last tour players to switch to metal woods. Coincidentally both won the only majors of the careers in 1997, shortly after putting the popular titanium Titleist 975D driver into play.
Enjoy the game and each other,
Seth Zipay – Head Golf Professional