Reliving Tiger's PGA Tour debut at Riviera

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Before “Hello, world,” there was an even more audacious introduction.

It began in the fall of 1990. Preparations were already underway for the Nissan Los Angeles Open, to be played the following February at glamorous Riviera Country Club, and tournament officials grappled with how to allocate the sponsor exemptions. Rather than burn one of their precious invites on an aging warrior in need of a competitive lifeline, tournament director Greg McLaughlin zeroed in on a local 14-year-old who was a former child celebrity and current junior world-beater.

Here was a chance not only to raise awareness regionally but also make a splash nationally – offering a spot in one of the PGA Tour’s premier events in one of the country’s biggest markets to a black prodigy who would make history as the youngest to appear in a tournament.

It was a brilliant public-relations move. The golf equivalent, McLaughlin would say later, of giving Picasso a paintbrush at age 12 … except the rest of the committee, including chairman Mark Kuperstock, scoffed at the idea.

Tiger Woods?

Pass.

“There were a bunch of people saying, ‘Are you out of your mind?’” McLaughlin says. “It took a bit of a leap of faith.”

And 69 strokes of serendipity. The week of the ’91 event, McLaughlin read in the Los Angeles Times how Woods, then a freshman at Western High in Anaheim, had nearly earned his own way through a 132-man qualifier. On the par-5 18th hole at Los Serranos, Woods was told that a closing birdie would secure one of the two available spots. From a tight, downhill lie, he needed to carry his second shot 250 yards to clear the pond fronting the green. A lay-up was the prudent choice, but he instead grabbed 3-wood. He caught it fat, and his ball one-hopped into the water. His 5-under 69 on the par-74 layout wasn’t enough to qualify, but it didn’t go unnoticed.

“Look at this!” McLaughlin hollered at tournament headquarters. “He almost qualified at 15!”

Now, even Kuperstock was convinced.

And so, in the fall of ’91, a year later than he wanted, McLaughlin finally extended the invitation to Woods’ father, Earl.

There was a long pause on the phone.

“Sir,” Earl Woods said, “my son would be honored to play in the Los Angeles Open.”


Photo gallery: Tiger's pro debut at the '92 L.A. Open


THE GOLF COMMUNITY IN Southern California was well aware of the kid from Cypress with the 1-iron build and massive trophy collection. After all, it was legendary KCBS sportscaster Jim Hill who first put Woods on camera, in 1978, after Earl called the station and raved about his 2-year-old son’s singular talent. Tiger played a hole at the Navy Golf Course near Long Beach, and at the conclusion of his piece, Hill declared, “This young man is going to be to golf what Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert are to tennis.”

“People say that Tiger had natural ability, that God gave him the ability to play golf,” says Don Crosby, Woods’ high school coach at Western. "No. God gave him a work ethic, and he put that work ethic to good use. Even at a young age he was the hardest worker I’d ever seen.”

That extensive preparation carried over to Woods’ Tour debut. In 1992, Peter Oosterhuis, who later became an analyst for CBS Sports, was the director of golf at Riviera. Before the L.A. Open, he hosted Woods and his sports psychologist, Jay Brunza, for a casual round.

“My first impression was, This kid is focused,” Oosterhuis wrote in Golf Digest in 2015. “He was polite but talked very little. He studied the green complexes intently; hit drives to different parts of the fairways. It was exactly the way an experienced pro prepares for a tournament. He hit the ball a mile, he hit it high, and he knew what he was doing. He was the most confident 16-year-old I’d ever seen.”

By tournament week, players in the locker room were buzzing about the high school sophomore. “There was resentment to the attention he was getting, probably more than anything,” says Mark Carnevale, the 1992 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. “Some of the guys were like, ‘Who the hell is this guy and why he is playing in this event?’ You could sense there was some of that.”

Says McLaughlin: “A lot of it was the curiosity factor. It’s hard to move the needle in that town, but once tournament week began, it was a really big story nationally within golf, and to some extent sports.”

Woods was scheduled to play with Paul Azinger and actor Peter Falk during the Wednesday pro-am, but Azinger withdrew because of an injury. A Tour official asked Gary Hallberg if he would cancel his afternoon plans and fill the spot. “I thought it would be kinda cool,” he says now. “Tiger was almost like this fictitious figure.”

Tucked next to the clubhouse, Riviera’s first tee is one of the most grandiose settings in golf, and fans crammed onto the veranda to watch the precocious talent. Sam Snead had flown into town that day as the tournament’s special honoree, and he posted up behind the tee to offer some encouragement to Woods.

“He wasn’t nervous at all,” says his caddie from that day, Ron "Graphite" Matthews. “He looked at it as just another day at a tournament.”

Hallberg teed off on the short par-5 opener and noticed that Woods was also about to start from the tips.

“Tiger, you get to tee off way down there,” Hallberg said, pointing to the lower tee about 60 yards ahead.

“I know,” Woods said, “but I’m going to play back here with you.”

“Really? But we could do well as a team if you just play back there.”

“No, Gary,” Woods insisted. “I’m playing here with you.”

Of course, moments later, Woods hit a long, towering hook that sailed into the corporate tents, out of bounds. He pulled 3-wood the rest of the week.

Even in his first big-league start, Woods understood all of the Tour’s unwritten rules: how to act, where to stand, when to finish out. “At 16, he was like a pro,” says Hallberg, even if Woods didn’t look like one, sporting a clip-on credential on his left pants pocket, like the Monday qualifiers.

“My expectation was that he was going to be really something else,” says Hallberg, 58, “and he was even more than I thought.”

At one point, Hallberg, in his 13th season on Tour, decided to share some life advice with the aspiring pro – unsolicited. “I said, ‘Tiger, you’re 16, you’re still a young man, you’re going to discover girls, and life is going to throw a lot at you, so you’ve just got to stay focused. Golf is a lifetime game. Keep your nose to the grindstone and you’re going to do just fine.’

“And he was staring at me like, 'Hey, old man, I’ve got this, OK?'”

According to newspaper reports, Woods shot 76 in the pro-am, though Hallberg remembers a hotly contested match with both players around even par. Either way, as Woods signed autographs afterward he was asked by a reporter if he’d be intimidated in his Tour debut.

“By who?” Woods said. “This isn’t that big a tournament, like the Masters or the U.S. Open, and I’m trying to keep it that way. It’s a regular tournament. And I’m just the local hero, or guy.”

Though Tiger possessed a quiet assuredness, his father, a former Green Beret lieutenant colonel, was a fierce promoter. On the eve of the tournament, Earl told The New York Times of his son: “He’s going to blow a lot of people’s minds.”



WHEN THE PAIRINGS FOR the L.A. Open were unveiled on Tuesday, Bob Friend immediately began to fret. As a Tour rookie, each early-season start was crucial, because he needed to earn enough money to survive the first reshuffle. His year had gotten off to a rocky start, with a pair of missed cuts and two other finishes outside the top 40. And now he was grouped with Woods, along with second-year pro Dicky Thompson.

“What had me concerned had nothing to do with Tiger,” Friend says, “but the people who were going to be following him. They’re not going to have the highest golf IQ. It was kind of the John Daly effect: Every week he played, he brought with him the NASCAR crowd. They didn’t know how to act at a tournament, and the other two playing partners were like vapors.

“I’m thinking to myself, Am I going to be able to get my work done? Is it going to be a zoo? And it sure was.”

In the opening round, Woods teed off at 8:28 a.m. – during advanced geometry, the high school class he was skipping. Riviera was teeming with fans of all ages, roughly 2,000 in all, including some of his teammates and classmates. “He had a whole fan club at Western,” says Crosby, 75. “I called in sick one of the days and just hoped that I didn’t get on TV.”

Woods has struggled with opening tee shots his entire career, but this one he smoked down the center. “As I took the club back, I’ve never felt a club weigh that much,” he says. “I’ve never felt nerves like that.”

Says Hill: “We were all holding our breath. I could hear some people say, ‘Please let him hit it right down the middle.’ And Tiger did himself proud.”

Woods birdied the soft opening hole.

“This is great,” he told himself. “This is how you want to start off your PGA Tour career.”

But on the second hole, a beefy par 4, Woods overcooked his tee shot near the fence that borders the driving range. When he tried to punch out behind a row of oleanders, his shot caught the curb of the cart path and bounced back toward him. He still had 170 yards, uphill, for his third shot, and a few branches restricted his backswing. No matter. He lofted a high, sweeping 8-iron to 4 feet. “Amazing shot,” Matthews marvels, even now. It was one of several otherworldly pars that week, each capped by a clawing gesture called the Tiger Paw. (Alas, it didn’t stick.)

But Woods’ play wasn’t the only adventure inside the ropes – a mob of media created a logistical nightmare. With about 50 writers, photographers, cameramen and even a few TMZ-types jostling for position, the three players repeatedly backed off their shots. So chaotic was the scene, three security guards joined the group at the turn to shield them from the stampede.

“On the seventh hole, I had a 20-foot birdie putt from the fringe and Tiger was waiting, leaning on his putter across the green,” Friend says. “I got down behind the ball, on a little crown, and a photographer crossed in front of me when I was reading the putt – literally walked between me and the ball and started taking pictures of Tiger from across the green.

“I said to him, ‘Are you kidding me?!’ My caddie grabbed him by the shoulders and told him to go over there. But it was like that for two days. It was insane.”

What struck Friend was Woods’ poise in the unseemly environment. He recalled his first time on a big stage, the 1984 U.S. Open, when he was a 20-year-old college junior. Lee Trevino’s group was coming up Winged Foot’s adjacent ninth hole when Friend’s name was announced on the first tee. Hundreds of fans turned to their left to watch the amateur begin his day. “I just about soiled myself,” he says. “But Tiger didn’t show any nervousness at any time. He looked like he belonged.”

Woods dazzled with his imagination and scrambling, but on the 11th hole, he wrenched his back while trying to gouge his ball out of deep rough on a severe uphill lie. (He received treatment after the round.) He still made nine consecutive pars to close, but lipping out an 8-footer on 18 soured his mood, even as the crowd yelled, “You da kid!” His opening, 1-over 72 – three shots off his goal for the day – left him eight back.

“They list all the great achievements that he had in his career, but when you really start thinking about it, that was probably one a lot of people forgot,” McLaughlin says. “A 72 on Day 1 at Riviera, at age 16, right out of the gate? Unbelievable.”

Ill-prepared for the media crush, tournament officials orchestrated a makeshift news conference by the main scoring area, with Woods hopping onto a riser to answer questions from a hundred reporters. It was the first glimpse into the all-consuming Tigermania coverage – Carnevale, who was one back after an opening 65, doesn’t recall speaking to a single reporter after his round.

After a few clipped responses, Tiger retreated to the player dining area, where he scarfed down a cheeseburger. “I could tell how proud Earl was,” McLaughlin says. “He hugged him and was almost in tears. It was the first time that I’d seen Earl really touched and excited.”

Outside with reporters, however, the sentimentality disappeared. “You haven’t seen the real Tiger yet,” Earl warned. “He has an awful lot more to his game than he showed today. That’s not putting pressure on him. That’s a fact.”



UNFORTUNATELY, NOT EVERYONE WANTED to see the real Tiger.

A series of racially charged voicemails had been left at tournament headquarters, with the caller threatening Woods’ life and admonishing the chairman for inviting a minority player. With Woods off late Friday, McLaughlin huddled with his internal security team to discuss the threat, then approached Earl once he arrived at the course. Even more security was dispatched, but Earl didn’t tell Tiger about the incident until after the tournament. A year later, Woods told the Los Angeles Times: “I guess Dad didn’t want me to lose my focus.”

Any cut-line suspense ended early on Day 2. Crooked off the tee – he found just 10 of 28 fairways for the week – Woods mixed five bogeys and a birdie for a second-round 75 and a two-round total of 147, leaving him six shots above the cut line and 17 behind halfway leader Davis Love III. (Woods was 125th out of 143 players.) Perhaps not surprisingly, none of the other players in the featured group made the cut, either.

“It was a learning experience,” he said afterward, “and I learned that I wasn’t that good.”

Woods was smiling and more relaxed when he met with the media after his second round, and seemingly every reporter dutifully noted that the kid had another event the following week, with much less at stake – a nine-hole match against Gahr High. (Woods shot 2 over and Western prevailed, 209-226.) But the constant attention and scrutiny proved exhausting. By the end of the week he signed autographs as only “Tiger,” apparently to conserve energy. His world was forever changed.

“Seriously, I would like to stand behind the curtain a little longer,” he said. “But I guess this tournament brought me out.”

Woods, the most ballyhooed junior since Jack Nicklaus, left a lasting impression on his fellow playing competitors and observers during his short stay at Riviera – with the exception of two-time major champion Sandy Lyle, who was asked what he knew about Woods: “Is that a golf course?”

Says Friend, 53: “If you’d asked me what his career would be like when he’s finished, I’d have said he’s definitely going to win majors, and win a lot of tournaments, and have a career like Davis Love III. It’d be a wonderful career. But at 16, it’s hard to say he’s going to be the greatest of all time, or the second greatest.”

Legendary sportswriter Jim Murray went even further, predicting superstardom in his column for the L.A. Times: “So, in a very important way, you won the L.A. Open. I hope you like it in the limelight because it looks as if that is where you will spend your career. The game is starved for a hero and it looks like you are elected.”

Woods made his first pro start in August 1996, in Milwaukee – “Hello, world” – but over the years he never forgot the courtesy extended to him as a high school sophomore.

As the game’s biggest draw in the late ’90s, Woods appeared each summer in the Western Open, the Chicago-area event run by McLaughlin. Having gained the family’s trust, McLaughlin was a logical choice as president and CEO of the Tiger Woods Foundation, a position he held from 2000-14, when he left to become commissioner of the PGA Tour Champions.

Woods and Hill reconnect every year. Last month, during media day for the Genesis Open at Riviera (which Woods’ foundation now runs), Hill showed Woods the infamous outtake from the ’78 feature, in which young Tiger sat on his father’s lap and, when asked by Hill whether he liked golf, responded: “I’ve gotta go poo-poo.”

“Over the years I kept going back to that poo-poo tape,” Hill says, “because that’s what he was doing to the rest of the guys on the PGA Tour. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. He’s a gift from the sports gods.”

Woods and Matthews crossed paths again a decade later, when the curtain had long since been lifted. They reminisced for five minutes at Bay Hill before heading their separate ways, this time for good. “I think about that week a little,” says Matthews, 68, “but you tell people you caddied for him once and they don’t believe you.”

Friend never played with Woods again, but 25 years later, the memories of that milestone event – the gray slacks, the striped shirt, the fireman-style hat, the recovery shots, the police escort, the media craze and the palpable buzz – remain as vivid as ever.

“It’s history, the first one,” Friend says. “Every time Riviera comes on, I tell my kids: Hey, your father is the answer to a trivia question.”