The problem with history is that it gets old in a hurry, falling from our forward vision into the peripheral, then tumbling to the rearview mirror with astonishing swiftness until it fades into a tiny speck fighting for space on the limited chip of memory. The other annoying aspect of the overwhelmingly significant event is that it rarely announces its presence. Major moments are recognized much more easily in retrospect than when they are happening. But looking back now with the clarity offered by the vantage point built of 10 years piled one atop the other, it is obvious every indication was there from the very beginning of his professional career that Tiger Woods would become the rarest of commodities in our overstated age of instant information: a talent who not only lived up to the hype but exceeded it.
|Ten Years of Tiger|
|This week marks the 10-year anniversary of Tiger Woods' professional debut. ESPN.com looks back on the last decade of his life -- and what the future might hold -- in this five-part series.|
When the 20-year-old Woods stepped before a microphone on Aug. 28, 1996, at Brown Deer Park Golf Club before the Greater Milwaukee Open and said simply, "Hello, world," framing the words with his radiant smile, there were many among the touring pros, fans and media who thought the supremely confident young man was about to be knocked off his high horse. When he said his goal for the week was to win, it was misinterpreted as cockiness rather than confidence. More than a little resentment festered among those who wondered why a guy with no PGA Tour victories should be able to turn pro without ever having to worry about making a 4-foot putt worth thousands of dollars, cushioned by the comfort of $40 million in endorsement deals already signed. What they were soon to find out was that it was never about the money for Tiger; It was always about the golf -- and winning.
Woods' PGA Tour debut was less than auspicious, but at the same time prophetic. History will note that he finished T-60 in his first tournament as a professional and earned a modest $2,544 in an event won by Loren Roberts. That he beat only eight guys among the 76 who made the cut bolstered the position of those who said Woods would attend the school of hard knocks before getting his first professional victory. The fact that Woods managed to make a hole in one in his professional debut established early an aspect of Woods that remains to this day: He has the ability to be the news even when he is not the news. In that regard, he is on that short list of athletes who can succeed even in failure, a list that includes Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan.
Next up was the rain-shortened Bell Canadian Open, and Woods' ability to acclimate himself to his new professional surroundings was astonishing. He finished 54 holes at 8-under-par 208, six strokes behind winner Dudley Hart and good for 11th place. At the Quad City Classic, Woods took a one-stroke lead over Ed Fiori into the final round but made a quadruple-bogey on the fourth hole and had a quadruple putt on No. 7 as he finished tied for fifth, four strokes behind Fiori. At the B.C. Open the next week, rain again shortened the tournament to 54 holes and Woods finished at 13-under-par 200, tied for third, three strokes behind winner Fred Funk. In four PGA Tour events, Woods had progressed from a struggling T-60 to being a constant contender, moving from 11th to fifth to third. The inevitable seemed imminent, and loomed on the horizon much sooner than anyone expected.
Woods entered the last round of the 90-hole Las Vegas Invitational four strokes behind Ronnie Black with established winners Davis Love III and Fred Couples among those between him and the leader. But a blistering 64 -- the lowest score in the final round by any of the 79 competitors -- put Woods into a playoff with Love and when Davis missed the green and failed to get up and down from a bunker on the first extra hole, it gave Woods not only his first victory with a routine par but also established a pattern that would become one of the calling cards of Woods: his ability to intimidate opponents -- especially quality opponents -- into mistakes.
The resentment that existed when Woods first turned pro was erased by two simple things. First, he won almost immediately -- in his fifth event and twice in his first seven. The guy belonged. Secondly, the light went on among the other players that not only was this guy good but the energy and interest he was bringing to the game was going to make them all rich. The fact that PGA Tour purses have tripled in the 10 years Woods has been a professional certainly proves the accuracy of the latter sentiment, and the fact he has won more than 50 PGA Tour events speaks to the veracity of the former assessment.
In the remarkably short stretch of seven tournaments, Woods earned enough to finish in the top-30 on the money list and qualify for the Tour Championship. If there was a downside to this remarkable year, it occurred shortly before 3 a.m. on the Friday of the second round when Earl Woods was rushed to a Tulsa hospital with what was revealed later to be a heart attack. Shaken, Woods, who considered withdrawing, played as he knew Pops wanted, but his heavy heart could manage only a 78. He would finish at T-21 with a 288, 20 strokes behind winner Tom Lehman. But he left Southern Hills with a much more important victory. Pops, the guy who got this all started, would be all right.
Later, when Tiger sat down to discuss those first hectic months as a professional, he said the biggest adjustment was dealing with the physical and emotional strain of constant competition and the constant attention of Tigermania. Asked how that exhaustion affected him, Woods said, with all modesty, "I lost my ability to will things to happen." That's the kind of statement that makes you want to call BS on the speaker, but with Woods, enough already had been seen to give it the ring of truth. Asked for an example of when he willed something to happen, Woods, with a huge smile, said: "That birdie putt on the 35th hole at Pumpkin Ridge. I knew it was going in. I gave it no choice."
In those words, perhaps, lay the secret to the success that has unfolded since that remarkable debut 10 years ago. Time and again, Woods has displayed a seeming ability to "will things to happen." Time and again, it has appeared as if he gave victory "no choice" but to occur. The suddenness of his success was stunning, but the truly remarkable significance of that rookie year would be viewed with more clarity and appreciated more fully from the perspective of 10 years past: For Tiger Woods, it was only the beginning.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.