Tiger Woods first left his mark on the PGA 25 years ago

LAS VEGAS — Davis Love III was in contention, as if anyone cared. He played before a handful of mostly silent fans who couldn’t help but notice the ruckus unfolding a few holes ahead as Tiger Woods made his way through the back nine on what would become an historic Sunday in sports.

“Bring it on home Mr. Woods,” the well lubricated shouted from the hillsides as Woods surged into contention in the Las Vegas Invitational, a tournament that was suddenly the hottest ticket in town.

“Tiger, Tiger, Tiger,” they chanted as they strained, jostling one another to get a glimpse of the greatness to come.

It was 25 years ago this week, and golf was about to change forever.

At the age of 20, Woods was already a phenom. Earlier in the year he had won his third straight U.S. Amateur, then turned pro to a “Hello, world” campaign by Nike that made him a millionaire before he ever hit a shot for pay.

Tigermania was brewing but Woods hadn’t really had his official coming out party yet. That would require a win, something he hadn’t been able to do in four tournaments since making his pro debut in Milwaukee.

Still, four shots back going into Sunday was close enough to bring an extra 10,000 fans who would never have considered going to a golf tournament any other time to the foothills on the edge of Las Vegas. They believed, even if some of Wood’s fellow pros were a little miffed at the attention given a player not even able to gamble legally in the city’s casinos.

“Everything has been Tiger, Tiger,″ an exasperated Fred Funk said earlier in the week after an opening 62 put him atop the leaderboard but barely got a mention in the morning newspaper. ”They kind of forget about everyone else out here.″

On this day no one else really mattered. Not Fred Funk. Certainly not Ronnie Black, who held the final round lead and will forever hold a historical footnote in golf.

I was following Woods as he moved into contention, covering the tournament for The Associated Press. He would shoot 63 in the second round, despite a second shot from well right of the 16th fairway that went into the water on the par-5 hole.

He yelled a profanity to no one in particular as he watched the ball disappear.

In a sign of things to come, Woods simply overpowered the TPC Summerlin course on the weekend. He eagled the third hole in his final round, and on the ninth hit a 6-iron into green of the par-5 hole while playing partner Keith Fergus hit two drivers and was still short.

Fans had never seen anything like it before. Woods was crushing drives into places his fellow competitors didn’t even have on their yardage books.

A new era in golf had suddenly arrived. The fans didn’t need any encouragement to hop aboard.

As Woods surged into the lead on the back nine Sunday, I walked just behind him, taking in scenes unlike any I had ever seen in golf. Polite applause had been replaced by raucous yelling and fans ran after each shot toward the next, trying to get in position for a glimpse of the young phenom.

A 12-foot birdie putt tied Woods for the lead on the par-3 14th hole, and as we walked to the 15th tee, the ropes could barely contain people who reached out to touch Woods or plead for him to toss a golf ball.

“Can’t you see we got a little something going here?” caddie Mike “Fluff” Cowan admonished one overly eager fan who demanded Woods’ ball as the scrum moved to the 15th tee.

Woods and Love would need extra holes to settle things on this day, but the coronation of Woods would not wait any longer. After hitting an iron safely on the green on the first playoff hole, he watched as Love airmailed his short iron into the back bunker. When Love couldn’t get it up and down, Woods had the first of what would become 82 PGA Tour wins.

The win paid $297,000, and came with a Masters invitation for 1997. Woods posed on the 18th green with two scantily clad showgirls and the oversized check, with no hint of the scandalous things that would forever link him to Las Vegas later in his career.

“It’s been an unbelievable experience,″ Woods said. ”It’s just like winning the Amateur, though. I really can’t say what it means until I think about it more.″

Six months later, Woods won his first green jacket in a runaway, his first of what would be 15 major championship wins. He would go on to become the greatest player of his time, and arguably the greatest of any time.

It all started when he hit the jackpot in Las Vegas.

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