This week professional golf competition returns to The Country Club at Brookline, Mass for the first time since the USA’s heroic comeback victory at the 1999 Ryder Cup. The last player to make a swing on the course that day was a man in knickers and a flat cap. It was a greenside bunker shot…
This week at the Genesis Invitational, Tiger Woods returns as tournament host. It was this very event, last year, which Tiger was travelling from to an appearance when he had that devastating car accident. I for one am just excited to see Tiger resume his hosting duties, be on site, and hopefully join the crew in the booth for some commentary. Car accident aside, this tournament has been a love-hate situation with Tiger. It’s the only one where has made at least 7 starts at and not won. As a southern Cal boy, he was always expected to win here. The course suits him so well. And 30 years ago this week, he made his PGA Tour debut here as a 16 year old.
It was 1992 and Tiger weighed about 140 lbs. He had just recently switched from persimmon woods to metal, and he remembers how nervous he was on the first tee. With 70 ft elevation change on the opening par-5, Tiger hit a 3-wood. “My practice swings felt fine but when I got over the ball I can remember how heavy the club felt taking it back. I don’t know how I got it to parallel but it felt like I had no control,” Woods said. He made his only birdie of the day on the first hole and shot a +1 72. This put him tied for 89th, 8 shots behind leader Wayne Levi.
Tiger shot 75 in the second round and missed the cut, but the education he received that week was far more important to his future than anything he would have learned in school, as he had to get permission from the principal to play in the event. “It was an incredible learning experience,” added Tiger. “I learned I wasn’t as good as I thought and I have a lot of growing to do.” That didn’t just mean growing his game. He had to get used to the media and fan attention if he wanted to pursue pro golf as a career. It’s a lifestyle and Tiger was shy. “I clearly wasn’t ready for it, but it’s what I wanted.”
This appearance was actually a year in the making. Tiger’s spot was of course on a sponsor’s exemption and in 1991, the tournament director tried to invite Woods, but the board rejected the idea. So instead, Tiger tried to Monday qualify for the then titled Nissan Open. He came to the last hole needing an eagle to make it, but his approach shot found the water. Later that year, Tiger won the US Junior Am, the first of 6 consecutive USGA wins for him. That victory paired with the close call at the Monday qualifier, sealed the deal for the invite in 1992.
After the phone call to invite Tiger to play, he and father Earl played a few practice rounds at Riviera in the next couple of months. They lived about an hour away in Cypress. Tournament Director Greg McLaughlin remembers how little advice Earl actually offered Tiger during those practice rounds. From everything he heard, he expected Earl to be very controlling and direct. McLaughlin formed a special bond and friendship with Woods. He served as CEO of the Tiger Woods Foundation from 1999 to 2014.
There was of course a lot of mixed reactions from the tour players of a 16 year old playing in one of their premier events. But the one reaction they all had in common was the amount of speed Tiger had and how far he hit it with a small frame just shy of 150 lbs.
Ted Schulz – The defending champ remembers giving a clinic on the practice range and Tiger hitting balls off to the side. “I thought, why isn’t he listening to what I’m saying? This guy is a kid and maybe he could learn something,” said Schulz. “Then I realized he was that good and didn’t need to hear anything from me.”
Billy Andrade – “I was actually nervous to go up and say hi to him. He was just so ahead of any junior player I had ever seen. The length his hits the ball and the way he carries himself”
Davis Love III – “There was a lot of curiosity around him, but he fit in. He didn’t look out of place once he started hitting balls.”
David Ogrin – “He has a very special gift, and he knows it.”
Willie Wood – “I keep my fingers crossed for the young man. It’s more than just ability. You have to have the right things happen at the right times.”
Sandy Lyle – When asked about Tiger Woods, “Never played there.”
Sam Snead – “He looks like he’ll be a force, but at 16 it’s hard to tell if he’s peaked or if he’ll get better.”
That week Tiger played in the Pro-Am as the amateur of course. 2-time PGA Tour winner Gary Hallberg was the pro and actor Peter Faulk (Columbo) was also in the group. Hallberg remembers telling Tiger he got to play way ahead from the amateur tees, and Tiger said “I’m gonna play back here with you.”
The 1992 L.A. Open is long considered the first chapter of Tiger Woods’ phenomenal career. A book that is now filled with 82 wins and 15 majors. A book that I am proud and honored to see from start to eventual finish. Host Tiger won’t be playing this week but just having him on the grounds and hearing him in the booth is enough for me. Golf with Tiger Woods as a part of it is a game I love.
Enjoy the game and each other,
Seth Zipay – Head Golf Professional