NORTON, Mass. – “I guess, hello, world.”
It was a sheepishly delivered line that changed golf. Within days, Nike Golf turned the remark, be it spontaneous or otherwise, into a marketing franchise and within 24 hours Tiger Woods set out on a historic journey at the Greater Milwaukee Open.
“The last few years seemed like it took centuries. I was struggling a bit. But just looking back on it, I remember so many shots from my early start in Milwaukee. I remember all that,” Woods said on Thursday at the Dell Technologies Championship when asked to reflect on that start 22 years ago. “That it's been 22 years since then, it has gone by more fast than I would have imagined.”
The 1996 GMO wasn’t where the world learned that Tiger was special – an incomparable amateur resume had already checked those boxes – but it was where the prodigy turned pro.
The fans that descended on Brown Deer Park in late-August to catch a glimpse of the can’t-miss kid may not have known what was in store, but John “Jumbo” Elliott had a pretty good idea what to expect.
“I had played with [Woods] at Riviera when he was 16 years old,” explained Elliott, who was deep into his third full season on the PGA Tour in ’96 when the computer spit out the grouping of a lifetime. “It was funny I was playing with [Robert] Gamez in a practice round, and told him that I’d played with [Justin] Leonard in his first [round as a professional] and [Charles] Howell in his first. I said, ‘I’m probably going to get paired with Tiger.’”
Elliott knew what to expect for his first two days with the heir apparent – huge crowds, mayhem and an impressive new brand of golf; but as his 1:36 p.m. tee time approached he was surprised by the lack of buzz.
“After he did the ‘Hello, world,’ moment the night before, we were on the range hitting balls, I was like, ‘This is odd, no one is here.’ I went to the first tee, they were five to 10 [people] deep,” Elliott said. “It was a U.S. Open crowd on a Saturday or Sunday.”
But if the crowds were predictable – and they were given the hype of Tiger’s pro debut – the quality of play was not. After all, Woods would not be the first transcendent athlete to fall short of expectations, but as the round unfolded Tiger turned out to be exactly what the experts thought he was.
Tiger birdied Nos. 3 and 4 and added an eagle at the par-5 sixth hole to move to 4 under par. What Elliott most vividly remembers was his game off the tee, with Woods hitting five of his first six fairways ... with a driver, no less.
That kind of proficiency off the tee hasn’t exactly become Tiger’s calling card now that he’s two decades removed from that groundbreaking moment. By comparison, he found just 9 of 14 fairways each of the first three days last week at The Northern Trust, where he tied for 40th.
“When I played with him he would aim that driver right center and hit a trap draw right down the middle,” said Elliott, who recalled Tiger roping his opening drive 337 yards down the middle of the first fairway. “If he would just do what he used to do. I don’t know why he still doesn’t do that?”
Woods is more of a high cut guy now, although given his stats he’s no less impressive in the power department. But Elliott’s point is valid. That first edition of Tiger, the one before injuries robbed him of countless seasons, was as good as advertised in every aspect of the game.
Tiger would go on to shoot 67, beating Elliott by a stroke, and finish the week tied for 60th. The next month he’d win his first Tour event, the Las Vegas Invitational, on his way to a two-victory season and his first start at the Tour Championship.
It was, by any measure, an impressive start even by the unrealistically high expectations the golf world had placed on the then-20 year old’s narrow shoulders.
Elliott’s path wouldn’t cross with Tiger’s again for eight years, after he’d won eight of his 14 majors
“In 2004 I’d been on the Web.com Tour and made it to the U.S. Open. I was on the range and I went up to Tiger and said, ‘If I would have fallen asleep in 2000 and woke up in 2004 and you’d have won all these majors I wouldn’t have believed it,’” Elliott recalled. “He said, ‘me, too.’”
In a unique way Tiger is now in a similar position. For the first time since 2013 he’s been able to play a full season on Tour and he continues to inch closer to another seminal moment in his career following near-miss victories at The Open and PGA Championship.
“I told my buddies at the Dye Preserve [Golf Club] in the winter, I’ve always said he will win if he’s healthy. It may take some time but if he stays healthy he could win three or four more majors,” said Elliott, who caddies at the Dye Preserve when he’s not chasing his dream of playing the PGA Tour Champions.
As Tiger continues to check off competitive boxes, the blueprint looks vaguely familiar to Elliott. He recognizes this most recent comeback and a path that’s starting to feel like a “Hello, again” moment.