The year was 1996, and Woods was six weeks removed from winning at the pinnacle of his amateur career ' the third win, as a matter of fact, at the U.S. Amateur. That happened at the end of August. Then he turned professional and finished in a tie for 60th at Milwaukee. The next week he was at the Bell Canadian, where he leaped up to tie for 11th. Then it was on to the Quad City, where he held 36-hole and 54-hole leads before finally succumbing to Ed Fiori and a tie for fifth place. Next up was the B.C. Open, his fourth tournament in as many weeks, and Woods was almost there, tying for third.
Las Vegas, then, was the place. He took a week off to rest, even though he received a world of criticism for skipping the Buick Challenge ' and therefore missed the Fred Haskins Award ceremonies for being the top college player. But rejuvenated by that one week of rest, Woods came to Las Vegas refreshed and ready, playing for the first time against the tours A-Team as a pro. Six of the tours top-10 money-winners were on hand, including names like Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples and Davis Love III.
Tiger made an adjustment before the tournament began, noting that he was 134th in putting on the tour. He practiced with a Scotty Cameron putter the Tuesday before the tournament, and it worked wonders for his confidence. He put it in his bag before the tournament began, and it continued to get the ball in the hole for the entire week.
He started play at the Las Vegas Hilton course, considered the easiest of the tournament courses, and could do better than a 70. That placed him well back in the field, eight shots behind Keith Fergus. After that, though, there was no catching him.
Tiger leaped into contention with a 63 Thursday, normally when a tournament starts but the second day of the five-round Las Vegas Invitational. His 63 included 12 straight threes. But Rick Fehr had tied an all-time PGA Tour record by shooting 64 in the opening round and 62 in the second, and he was the leader going into the third round Friday.
Woods crept up the ladder a little more with a third-round 68, then followed with another solid round, a 67, on Saturday. So beginning Sunday he was at 268, but still four shots out of the lead and with six players standing between him and leader Ronnie Black.
Tiger opened fast in the fifth and final round. A wedge to 15 feet and a bullseye putt meant a birdie at hole No. 1. But something was obviously wrong ' Woods was fighting a groin injury and it didnt look like a title was in his immediate future on this day.
Tiger was en route to shooting a 64, though, and nothing like a little groin injury was going to stop him this day. He already had the lead midway through the back nine, and it was just a case of continuing steady play as first one player and then another fired and fell back. Black. Kelly Gibson. Dave Stockton, Jr. Mark Calcavecchia. All tried their best to close the gap, and none could do it ' save one. Love.
Love scrambled back with a birdie on 16 and after 90 holes, they were all tied. It was to be a playoff between the 20-year-old youngster who had played exactly five tour events, and a 32-year-old 11-year veteran who had already won 10 times.
Woods went with a 3-wood in the playoff at the par-4 18th and hit it just short of Loves driver. Tiger then lofted a 9-iron to 18 feet of the flag, but Love pulled his 8-iron approach into the back bunker.
Love blasted from the bunker to six feet. Tiger putted it close and made his par, then settled down with the whole world to watch Love. Davis par try slid by the hole, and just like that, Tiger had the first win of his victory-filled career.
He is obviously the next great player, Love said after it was over. We are going to try to beat him just like were trying to beat Phil Mickelson. I think everybody better watch out. Hes going to be a force.
Before he started his unlikely run ' he also won in his next tournament, Disney ' Justin Leonard made a comment that was definitely untrue. Itll be very difficult for Tiger to make $150,000 (before the end of the 96 season), said Leonard. Thats a lot of pressure riding on a 20-year-olds shoulders.
Untrue. Tiger did manage $150 thousand. In fact, he managed $790,594.
Oh gawd, said Peter Jacobsen. If this is how he is every week, then its over. Hes the greatest player in the history of the game.
And that was true, spoken when Tiger was still a 20-year-old.
Yes its true, as Tiger is now 26 and the owner of those 34 titles plus seven others from around the world. But it had to start somewhere, and it all began in Las Vegas.