To Stanford's defending NCAA champs, Tiger Woods was just a freshman
This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's April 2, 2001, issue. Subscribe today!
SIX AUGUSTA SPRINGS AGO, the golf world held its breath as 19-year-old Tiger Woods, a Stanford freshman and the most heralded prodigy in the sport's history, teed up for the first time at The Masters. The scores he recorded that week -- 72-72-77-72 -- while not exactly dazzling, were good enough to win the sterling silver cup awarded each year to the tournament's low amateur. Woods finished tied for 41st with Mark Calcavecchia, Jeff Sluman and Payne Stewart, all winners of major titles. Behind Woods lagged a group of golf's billboard names -- Ballesteros, Daly, Sutton, Zoeller, Els, Singh, among others -- who, collectively, had 185 majors on their résumés. No one could be disappointed at the kid's showing in his first major. Well, that's a lie. Tiger's Stanford teammates, in Georgia for matches with Georgia Tech, were devastated, bewildered and a little bit irritated. They couldn't believe what they saw on the board. Five-over par? Forty-first place? Suddenly every dream each had ever had of making the turn at Amen Corner, in contention on a Sunday, was replaced by a vision of teaching some old lady the Vardon grip at a driving range off U.S.-1 in Pompano Beach. "We were like, if that's how Tiger stacks up against Tour players, we're all in trouble," recalls Steve Burdick, an All-America two years earlier and a leader of the team that won the 1994 NCAA team championship. "He had more game than any of us had ever seen. We figured he'd at least finish in the top 10." Like all college kids, they sat up a few nights and talked about the future, their hopes and fears, late into the morning. Actually, "all college kids" is not a fair way to put it. This was more like five guys off the top of the dean's list hearing that a Four-Point-Oh they knew had gotten a form rejection letter after his first job interview.
The story behind the story
In the spring of 2001, then-25-year-old Tiger Woods had already won five majors. But he hadn't granted a one-on-one interview with a print journalist since 1997, including politely declining my request before the '01 Masters. That left me and my editor searching for a way to shed some light on a kid who had never given us much beyond shot-by-shot recaps of his rounds. My suggestion that we focus on Tiger's first Masters appearance, when he was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion and a college freshman, led us to "First Class."
Lunch in Palo Alto, Calif., with then-retired Cardinal golf coach Wally Goodwin led to laughs about Tiger's two left feet on the dance floor. A meeting with Casey Martin in Tucson, Ariz., uncovered news of how Woods was rarely given playing time on the golf team's intramural basketball squad for fear that he'd injure himself, or someone else. I caught up with one old teammate, Will Yanagisawa, as he walked off a course. He was using a pull-cart to save on caddie costs at a Canadian Tour event on a sub-40-degree day. It was a stark contrast to the life Woods had created for himself as the game's biggest star. The one other player on the Stanford team who'd made it on tour, Notah Begay III, had good stories about putting the most famous freshman in college golf history in his place.
But it was a phone conversation with Steve Burdick, the best player on Stanford's national championship team in 1994 -- the spring before Tiger arrived -- that has stayed with me. "I sat down for lunch with him one day," Burdick recalled. "And I said, so what else do you do besides play golf? And Tiger said, 'Eat and sleep.'" That story -- that quote -- encompasses both the good and bad we've seen from Tiger in the years since. I can't help but think that "golf, eat, sleep" is what has made Woods the player, and person, he is. --Jeff Bradley
They'd been national champs before Woods ever showed up in Palo Alto with his one U.S. Amateur and three U.S. Junior Amateur titles. Now, with Tiger on board in 1995, they were being billed as the greatest college golf team of all time, with the talent, nerve and swagger not only to beat the best in college golf, but to bury them. Even a casual golf fan will recognize two names from that team: Notah Begay III, a four-time winner on the Tour and one of the game's rising stars, and Casey Martin, who missed getting his card by one stroke last year while battling the PGA Tour over his right to use a cart. You get the picture -- these guys could play, not a little but a lot. Yet here they were, feeling like a bunch of 12-handicappers because Tiger hadn't wasted the field at his first major. "We'd been watching Tiger play since September and he was even more impressive than what we'd heard," says Martin. "The contact he made was like nobody else I'd ever seen. It was a different sound, so crisp every time. His divots were tight and shallow. Never a clunker. And he was the best clutch putter I'd ever seen in my life. Big putt? Pick it up." Will Yanagisawa, who had shot a 64 in the NCAA tournament the year before, says, "I remember telling Casey and Notah, 'If this kid doesn't go out and get his card right away and doesn't do really well on the Tour right out of the gate, then what are we going to do?' "
But if there was a guy on this team who could deliver a Blutarsky, stand up and scream, "What's all this lying around s -- !?", it was Begay, the team's resident trash-talker, hothead, anti-establishmentarian and fifth-year-senior leader. At the time, Begay was living in the basement of the Sigma Chi frat house, sleeping on an air mattress and eating PB and J, because he'd voluntarily given up the room-and-board portion of his scholarship to Yanagisawa, whose family's golf club repair business was struggling. Begay, who'd played some junior golf with Woods, knew the hero-worshiping had to stop. "Some of the guys were a little in awe of Tiger," says Begay, laughing. "Sure, he was the highest-profile college golfer of all time, an incredible player and one of my best friends. But the guys needed to remember what was really important. Number one, he was our teammate; and number two, he was a dang freshman. We had to keep him in his place. I kind of went out of my way to remind the guys Tiger was getting no preferential treatment. He was sleeping on the rollaway and carrying our bags."
Back in the fall of 1992, entering their junior years at Stanford, Martin and Begay told their coach, Wally Goodwin, they wanted to redshirt. Martin wanted to tinker with his swing. Begay wanted to start working on what is now his trademark -- putting both lefty and righty, so he's always putting with the break. They both wanted to get ahead academically so they could concentrate more on golf their final two seasons. "And," says Martin, "we wanted to stack the tables for our fifth year. We'd heard there was a good chance Tiger was coming to Stanford." No offense to the 1994 NCAA champs -- especially Begay, who set an NCAA tournament record by shooting 62 in the second round at McKinney, Texas -- but the buzz about Cardinal golf didn't kick in until the following September. "Before Tiger," says Goodwin, "a typical college golf gallery was three or four families, a couple of kids and a stray dog. When Tiger got here, it turned into three or four hundred, sometimes more."
It took exactly one tournament in Palo Alto for everyone to grasp the phenomenon that was Tiger. At the U.S. Intercollegiate, a tournament Stanford hosts each spring, Goodwin pleaded with school officials to prepare for crowd control. No one listened. "So on my own," Goodwin recalls, "I had white paddles made that said 'Quiet Please' and recruited some volunteer marshalls." The coach then told the course staff they'd have to use the open field near the second hole for overflow parking. (Yeah, Wally, whatever.) "Hundreds of cars rolled in," Goodwin says. "All to watch Tiger. Then I get word that he's strained his shoulder on the second or third hole. He hangs in through 11, where he calls it quits. People see him leaving the course and decide, 'We're outta here.' They start making their way across the fairways to their cars. The whole tournament gets held up. Players start hitting golf balls down toward the spectators, trying to chase them off the course!"
Observers always noticed one thing about the 1995 Stanford golfers: They didn't look very much like, well, a golf team. "The most PC team of all time," says Martin. "A Native American (Begay), an African-Asian-American (Woods), a Japanese-American (Yanagisawa), a Chinese-American (Jerry Chang), a boring white guy (Burdick) and me, a disabled American. And I was the only guy on the team who grew up playing at a country club." Can you imagine a golfer actually getting teased for wearing Polo ensembles? Martin was, unmercifully. Of course, when Begay is strutting around -- cussing like a truck driver, with two hoop earrings, shirtsleeves rolled up practically to his armpits and clay war paint on his cheekbones -- a guy dressed like Davis Love III looks weird. Nobody was immune from abuse. Tiger? On days he wore his glasses instead of contact lenses, Begay would call him "Urkel" while reminding the freshman to carry the bags out to the team van. Woods was more a target of ridicule than you can imagine now, given the GQ image he carries, partly because then he was just a little too focused. Once, when Tiger was being recruited, Burdick asked him over lunch what he did, you know, other than play golf? "Eat and sleep," Tiger answered matter-of-factly. Burdick nodded: "Okay." "The guys had an intramural basketball team," Goodwin says, struggling to control a laugh. "Burdick was a terrific player. Notah was an all-state player in New Mexico. Casey was the coach and, in blowouts, he'd go on the court and shoot a few three-pointers. Then there was Tiger. I went to one game and told Casey, 'You can't let him play. He's either going to get hurt, or he's going to hurt someone.' Tiger couldn't catch the ball, he couldn't dribble and he couldn't shoot." Goodwin wipes his eyes: "On Friday nights, the guys would lure Tiger into going to a fraternity party where there was a band, so they could laugh at the way he danced."
Goodwin, who took the Stanford job in 1987 at age 60 after a 27-year career of coaching mostly football and basketball, believes coaching golf is, basically, finding good players, helping them manage their lives and letting them play. About the only thing mandatory in Wally's world was short-game practice. In the spring of 1995, Goodwin found he didn't even have to stand around the practice green and supervise this group. That, or he didn't want to. "Okay," he says, "I was never down there when they had their little monetary contests, because they knew I didn't go for it. But I could see these games were pulling everybody together. I convinced myself that, in the end, everybody pretty much broke even." Martin recalls the putting contests as epic. "In the beginning, Notah and I were always challenging the young guys. Notah would be talking trash and running in these 80-footers for, like, 20 bucks, and we'd be running all over the green, hollering at each other. Then we'd come up with, let's say, more creative teams. Two white guys against ... I guess I have to watch my wording here ... two not-white guys. It got pretty intense." The burger money at stake wasn't anyone's real incentive to win. "If you lost," says Chang, "you were reminded of it, constantly, until you won again. That internal competition made us sharp."
But in the midst of this magical season, when the Stanford golf team was suddenly signing autographs in airports and playing in front of real galleries, one of the program's pillars lost his game. Burdick, always the team's most reliable ball-striker, went into an unthinkable slump. "That January," recalls Goodwin, "Steve asked me to help him pick a new set of irons. I said, 'You're an All-America. You're hitting the ball great. Why now?' He said, 'I want to work the ball.' I was against it. But he went out on his own and bought a set of blades. Within two weeks, his game was gone, and he never got it back." Turns out Burdick was the one player on the team who couldn't get Tiger off his mind. "I saw the things Tiger could do, the shape and trajectory of his shots," he says. "And I thought I had to change my game to play at his level. Now, of course, I know that nobody plays at his level. I should have kept playing my own game."
"We felt so bad for Steve," Begay says. "This is a guy who would play an entire tournament and miss maybe 10 greens. Everyone tried to help him. We broke out every trick in the book to try and get him back. When he lost his spot to Jerry, he showed incredible class the way he pulled for us." The Cardinal rolled through their tournament schedule, then set off for Columbus, ready to defend their NCAA title. "But nobody shot a single round in the 60s," Goodwin says, shaking his head, even after six years of thinking about it. "We were always shooting in the 60s. Still, we had a shot to win it on the last green. Notah had a three-footer for birdie." "A chance for me to put the greatest end to the greatest year," says Begay, his voice trailing off. "I'll never forget that miss." Stanford lost to Oklahoma State on a playoff hole, ending Tiger's freshman season and the college careers of Begay, Martin, Yanagisawa and Burdick. "They were devastated," says Goodwin. "But they were men about it. They stood like rocks and accepted the second-place trophy." It was the last time the whole group of players has been together.
Today, Yanagisawa plays on both the Canadian and the Asian tours and says, "I'm going to play as long I can make a living." Martin says the same thing, only in his case the phrase "as long as I can" takes on a different meaning. He's back on the Buy.com Tour and awaits the Supreme Court's ruling on whether he can continue to use a cart. If the ruling goes against him, Martin has said he will have to retire because his painful birth defect, a disease known as Klippel-Trenaunay-Webber Syndrome that restricts blood flow to his right leg, has reached the point where he can no longer walk and play. Burdick, after spending a year as Martin's caddy, became a youth minister at the Community Covenant Church in Rocklin, Calif., and now works for College Golf Fellowship, a program similar to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. "There were days when I asked myself why I chased that little white ball for 15 years," says Burdick. "But there's a lot I can share with college golfers because I went through a lot myself." Chang, Tiger's closest friend from the Stanford days, attends UCLA Business School; he played hooky in February to partner with Woods in the AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, where they were co-winners with Phil Mickelson and Kenny G. Then there's Begay, who has the game to dream of a Sunday afternoon in April when he and Tiger, both wearing Cardinal red, form the final pairing at Augusta. The same Begay who, six years ago, wanted to make sure a bunch of upperclassmen didn't let a 19-year-old intimidate them. Did Begay realize back then how good the 19-year-old was? "Are you kidding? I knew how good Tiger Woods was. Everybody did. But he was a freshman."
Bradley, a former senior writer at the Magazine, is now a freelance writer in New Jersey.