Fourteen summers ago Tiger Woods was midway through his college career and running out of reasons to stay in school. Stanford officials had already bounced him from the golf team for a day over a “Masters Diary” magazine article he had bylined that spring. Woods was also frustrated by the huge time commitment of Division 1 golf and the effect it was having on his grades. The end came in August when he travelled to Oregon and three-peated the U.S. Amateur Championship. Engraved somewhere on his Havemeyer Trophy was a hidden message: Win this three times in a row—you gotta turn pro.
Had Woods not staged a desperate rally against Steve Scott in that final match he may have been back at Stanford decorating a Kimball Hall dorm room and scrounging textbooks for Econ 111 with Prof. McKinnon. (The title of McKinnon’s course is Money and Banking, which Tiger could probably now teach.) He would have cheered the Cardinal football team on to its Sun Bowl appearance and defended his title in the Stanford Invitational.
Come November, with Woods still an amateur, Tom Byrum would have finished No. 125 on the tour money list and not had to go back to Q School.
But Tiger turned pro. And the rest is history, some of it checkered, of course. In his first decade as a tour player, when Woods would return to Akron, Ohio, for the WGC-Bridgestone tour event, he would have reason to recall his big step into the pro ranks. Tom Strong, in charge of the Greater Milwaukee Open when Tiger made his move into pro ranks, moved on to run the WGC-Bridgestone. Strong, who had arranged the Milwaukee press conference at which Tiger delivered his official announcement, had shown prescience in the months prior, inviting Woods to his tournament and keeping his ears perked for a change in status.
“The worst that could happen,” he says in hindsight, “was we’d have Tiger in our field as an amateur.” The day after the U.S. Amateur ended, word of Woods’ impending decision was forwarded to Milwaukee. For 24 hours Strong quietly reveled in the knowledge that his backwater tournament would soon launch an amazing pro golf career.
Amazing, and at the same time predictable. More than predictable—predicted. Johnny Miller calmly assured us we would be watching one of the best ever. Jack Nicklaus estimated Tiger would win 10 Masters titles, at least. With his career a decade old, Woods was on pace to do what was prophesied. How many majors did he win in his first decade, 10? It seemed simple to mark him down for 10 more through 2016. How many tour wins at that point—48? It was no stretch to double that to 96 and check back at the 20-year point. By which point Tiger would be comfortably (and permanently) installed at the pinnacle of both career categories. And future tour pros in the 15-and-under age group will find themselves ideally situated—old enough to have seen Tiger Woods in his prime but young enough to compete in the post-Tiger era, with the No. 1 spot on the tour money list back up for grabs.
Since it’s probably simpler to list the things Woods hasn’t done, and since he may need extra motivation as he cruises into his second pro decade, here are a few items missing from the been-there, done-that inventory:
>> Tiger hasn’t won much on old-school U.S. Open courses. Fifteen years from now, it will be odd to read a club history of Oakmont, Baltusrol, Winged Foot, Oak Hill, Shinnecock, the Olympic Club, The Country Club and Oakland Hills and not see a glimpse of glory for Tiger Woods in any of their annals. He won the ’99 PGA at Medinah, and the ’07 PGA at Southern Hills) but the sites of his other U.S. majors (Pebble, Valhalla, Bethpage, Augusta, Torrey Pines) differ physically and culturally from the old, elite, tight-driving layouts still widely viewed as being the classic proving grounds of American championship golf.
>> He hasn’t fueled a golf participation boom. He tried, and in the year after he turned pro there was about a 7 percent bump in the golfing population. But fairly soon the numbers shrank back to where they were previously, and by 2005 the number of golfers in the U.S. was about equal to what it had been in 1990.
>> He wasn’t the reason golf went from dorky to cool. When Tiger hit the scene, plaid pants and cardboard-collar shirts were already long gone. You could identify yourself as a golfer to a single female in a trendy bar and more likely gain points than lose them. Tiger has upped the coolness quotient, but not as much as people like Carmelo Villegas, Michelle Wie, Paula Creamer and Natalie Gulbis might someday do. Tiger isn’t rebellious in any way. Despite his “Cablinasian” background, he is a conventional thinker compared to athletes like Muhammed Ali or even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Without his sex addiction scandal, his human-interest factor is pretty low-octane.That limits how much he can alter the face of the sport.
>> He hasn’t had a great Ryder Cup run. The U.S. has lost the last two of the four he’s played in, with Tiger only throwing in a couple of points here and there. His overall record is 10-13-2. Those 13 losses leave him tied for the third-most in U.S. Ryder Cup history.
What Tiger has done is preside over (and legitimize) the emergence of 21st-century power golf. Give an assist to John Daly, but Tiger’s role is the primary one, despite the fact that he has never been No. 1 in tour driving distance and probably never will be. Without his heroic bearing and classic athleticism the recent switch from shot-shaping to rocket-launching would have been much more lamentable. The first decade of the Tiger Era coincided perfectly with the hump-up in driving distance, making it aesthetically easier to bear. Tiger pounded the weights, he got himself ripped, he looked every inch the athlete, and that made runaway technology more palatable.
He also single-handedly kept alive our memory of The Mike Douglas Show. Props to Eldrick for that.
It’s going to be interesting when Tiger gets past his prime. Unlike Palmer, Nicklaus, Hogan and maybe even Jones, Woods has always been the dominant player in his peer group. He was wealthy the moment he turned pro and has probably upped his total personal income every year in these last 10. He is part of every golf conversation, whether his name gets mentioned or not. After Fred Astaire stopped dancing in movies, did we expect someone as good or better to come along after him? That never happened. Picasso died in 1973 and no painter or sculptor has taken his place. We can tell already that Tiger Woods, when he’s finished, will leave the PGA Tour’s record books in a shambles. He might just leave its business prospects in a similar condition.
FIVE OTHER PHENOMS FROM THE WOODS ERA
While Tiger was tearing up the golf scene, these young achievers were doing the same in their own chosen fields:
Larry Page, whose stint at Stamford briefly overlapped Tiger’s, flashed his huge potential in business and computing that very August of ’96, when he and partner Sergey Brin released the first version of their Google search engine on the university web site. Page remains one of the top three executives at the globally dominant firm and has accumulated a financial net worth of over $7 billion.
Scarlett Johansson turned pro as a film actress with her winsome performance as the younger of two orphaned sisters in the 1996 chick-flick charmer, “Manny and Lo.” She’s got one Oscar to Woods’ 10 majors, but she may end up with more magazine covers than he has.
Barack Obama began his fast ascent in politics in 1996 when he won election to the Illinois state senate. The charismatic, Hawaiian-born Democrat has Woods-like parentage—a black Kenyan father, a Caucasian mother and an Indonesian step-father. Young-looking at 45, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004 and is considered by many a formidable presidential candidate.
Harry Potter stood poised for his reign atop the field of literature in the fall of 1996 when the first novel of his adventures, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” was accepted for publication in Britain by Bloomsbury Ltd. With more help from author J.K. Rowling (who was nearly penniless when she finished the first book and now at age 40 is a billionaire) than Tiger ever got from Butch Harmon, Harry has sold some 400 million copies of his books and starred in a series of hit movies based on the Rowling novels.
GOING PRO: The Countdown
Sun., August 25, 1996: Tiger wins his third straight U.S. Amateur in a thrilling comeback over Steve Scott.
Mon. Aug. 26: Calls Tom Strong, indicates he wishes to conclude his amateur career, turn professional and be able to compete for a share of the GMO’s $1.2 million purse.
Tue., Aug. 27: Gallery watching Woods practice at Brown Deer Park begins whispering the rumor that Tiger is about to turn pro. Late that afternoon, a press conference is announced for the following day. That night, Woods is goaded into picking up a dinner check by dining companions who know his secret. Still an impecunious college student, Woods is forced to pay with $25 gift certificates he had picked up at the course.
Wed., Aug. 28: Tiger goes before the press in the morning and announces he is now a professional golfer. However, he plays as an amateur in the pro-am that day, with Duffy Waldorf as his pro partner. Woods is ineligible to compete for money in the pro-am because the pairing was made before his declaration.
Thur., Aug. 29: Reported to be in genuine awe at the sight of it, Woods opens his locker to find three dozen golf balls and four new golf gloves inside. He shoots 67-69-73-68—277 for a seven-under final score good enough to tie him for 60th place and earn him his first professional prize check of $2,544.
Mon.,Sept. 2: In Woods’ mail at his parents’ home in Cypress, Calif., is a check from Nike for $624,000, the monthly amount he will receive until his contract is renewed (at an increase) three years later.