From the Golf Journal Archives - A Long Walk Toward the Dawn

Oct 14, 2011

Pushed to extremes in a 38-hole final, Eldrick (Tiger) Woods accomplished the unprecedented: a third straight U.S. Amateur title.

By Brett Avery

(Note: This article originally appeared in the October 1996 issue of Golf Journal.)

DUSK ON A HOT August day. Two men, one young and one middle-aged, stand beside the 18th green, no clubs in sight. Night approaches without a breath of air, without a ripple on the nearby river. Five minutes. Ten. Fifteen. Few words are spoken. Their shared memories of an afternoon from three years ago render conversation unnecessary.

They point, they nod. The ball was there, in the sand. The hole was here, 40 yards away, just over the crest of the deep bunker, just beyond this rough, shaggier then. The opponent led the match, 1 up, with his ball here, two putts and 45 feet from a national championship. The young man had no margin for error and needed a miracle, after making a remarkable birdie at the last hole to prolong the match.

He dug in his feet. The wedge flashed and carved. Sand grains exploded. The ball rose, floated, landed, stopped. Ten feet, left of the hole. The opponent lagged to three feet. Then the young man, as he had done so often, rolled the ball into the cup’s heart. Birdie. A playoff hole later, after a regulation par, the outcome no one had imagined 30 minutes earlier had come true.

The light has faded by the time Eldrick (Tiger) Woods leaves the green, yet he remembers each detail as clearly as high noon. Once upon a time he was the best youth to play the game in this country, perhaps in the world, perhaps ever. Three consecutive U.S. Junior Amateur victories, when no one in nearly five decades of trying had won more than one. This spot, Waverley Country Club, was No. 3, his final examination before becoming a golfing adult. This twilight visit as much reinforced the memory as rededicated a dream.

Through an eerie quirk of scheduling, Woods was back in Portland, Ore., this time 20 miles to the west, attempting to win an unprecedented third consecutive US. Amateur. Four days after his impromptu twilight reunion with his youth, Woods found himself in similarly precarious straits on the Witch Hollow Course at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club. He trailed final opponent Steve Scott by five holes after playing but 11, hitting only four of his first nine greens in regulation and making two double bogeys and a bogey.

“I wouldn’t have been happy until I had him 10 [down] or something,” Scott would recall later in the day. “He’s that tough.”

Ryan Armour knows. He was victimized by Woods’s comeback at Waverley. Dormie 2, and he lost.

Trip Kuehne knows from the 1994 U.S. Amateur. Five up, 13 to play. Lost.

Ditto for George Marucci Jr. from the ‘95 Amateur. Three up after the 12th. Lost.

Add Scott, 2 up with three left in regulation and “attempting to stop the history” Woods wanted to write. Woods made two birdies and three pars, in that order, and wound up the tearful winner at the 38th hole in an Amateur final only one hole shy of the longest in a century of play.

“What does it take to beat this guy?” a puzzled Scott asked the gallery at the awards presentation, glancing at Woods. “Only God knows.”

Since just three people have concocted the formula for beating Woods in USGA competitions, he owns two revered records: best winning percentage in Amateur match play (.909) and most consecutive Amateur match-play victories (18). In a cornucopia of numbers, however, the most impressive is six consecutive years with a USGA title, surpassed only by the eight years Bob Jones strung from the 1923 Open to ‘30 Amateur.

“I don’t know what the significance is of this yet,” Woods said. “I didn’t know what the significance of winning two in a row was. It’s going to take me a while, that’s for sure.”

Just as the game’s present-day chroniclers and latter-day historians began grappling with their assessments, Woods abruptly abandoned one of the most storied amateur careers imaginable, leaving behind his junior year studies at Stanford University and any talk of a fourth Amateur. Within 48 hours of gaining the Havemeyer Trophy, Woods released a statement saying he had turned professional; within seven days he earned $2,544, his first check on the PGA Tour, for his tie for 60th at the Greater Milwaukee Open.

Ended was a college career that brought eight victories in his sophomore season, including an NCAA title that made him only the 12th to gain both the college and national championships, and the fourth holding them concurrently. Gone, too, was the speculation of when he would turn pro, a topic that bubbled through the media since his victory over Marucci a year ago.

“I’ve been joking with my friends,” Woods said midway through the week, “what will these reporters do when I turn pro?”

They responded with questions about his jaw-dropping reversal of fortunes, notably a mega-dollar endorsement contract with the shoe manufacturer Nike and a berth in the made-for-television Skins Game. Those marketing strokes doused a national hot-stove league debate on where he stood in the pantheon of great amateurs. Gone, too, were any chances for widespread celebration (Jones enjoyed ticker-tape parades and months of adulation after some victories), traded for what amounted to a probationary tryout on the PGA Tour in which he eventually won playing privileges for 1997. By the time he secured that card, the victory over Scott at Pumpkin Ridge seemed as far removed as that triumph over Armour at Waverley – or that reminiscence at dusk earlier in Amateur week.

What turning professional obscured was one of the finest performances in the event’s 101-year history. He gained the qualifying medal at 7-under-par 136, two shots ahead of Bo Van Pelt. Despite struggling on Pumpkin Ridge’s greens for 27 holes, Woods birdied the 12th, 13th, 16th and 18th of the Witch Hollow Course for a second-round 67. “You want to peak going into match play,” he said, “and right now I’m playing better every day.”

Over the next five days the galleries grew to proportions unseen since the unpaid game’s heyday of the 1950s and ‘60s, or perhaps the Jones era. Thousands of spectators shadowed his every move despite Portland’s string of days with near-record temperatures in the 90s. Woods, as medalist, was the first match off No. 1 tee in every round; those starting 30 minutes later drew a crowd resembling the club championship’s third flight. Yet those who dedicated their energy to following Woods around Pumpkin Ridge missed a terrific championship, the best in years.

The first overlooked chapter was Monday and Tuesday as James Oh of Lakewood, Calif., at 14 years, four months and 20 days, became the youngest Amateur entrant, edging by a month Jones in 1916. Oh, who did not make the U.S. Junior Amateur field a month earlier, shot 86-73 and missed the cut. Short in stature and length, the bespectacled Oh hit fairway woods into greens to keep up with his elders.

The second was Scott, who came within a whisker of going home early. If the Amateur were seeded akin to the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Scott could have made a case for No. 2. Last year, as a spear-carrier in the opera that is the University of Florida men’s team, he made a surprising move into the Amateur semifinals and lost to Marucci at the 19th, forfeiting a spot in the Masters. “I’ve been thinking about it all year,” Scott said.

This year held greater promise. An honorable mention All-America pick in the college season, he made the cut in the U.S. Open (seven shots behind Woods’s 294) and placed second in the Sunnehanna and Northeast Amateurs. In the latter he shot 74 the last day to lose his lead; he opened stroke play at the Amateur with a fat 79.

“I thought there was no way I would get my shot again,” he would say on the eve of feeing Woods. “It’s a great feeling.” Accompanied by his girlfriend-turned caddie, Kristi Hommel, who whispered encouragement in his ear, Scott shot 66 on the Ghost Creek Course and wound up in the middle of the bracket’s lower half.

Despite Scott’s heroics, the praise went to Woods, who held court in Wednesday’s first round with a 3-and-2 defeat of J.D. Manning of Fort Collins, Colo. The day before, Manning had survived a nerve-wracking playoff to gain the draw’s 64th slot. Against him Woods made one 5, a par at the 553-yard 11th, but by that time he had erased a one-hole deficit by winning the seventh through ninth.

The real nail-biter was the day’s third match, where Charles Howell III of Augusta, Ga., needed 24 holes to defeat Jeff Golliher of Knoxville, Term. Howell's introduction to USGA competition was that Junior at Waverley when, at 5-foot-4 and 94 pounds, he made the semifinals. A month before the Amateur the 17-year-old played his last Junior, the title he so coveted – and lost the final at the 19th. Against Golliher he made eight- and 18-footers to get to overtime, then hit an 8-iron to 11 feet and drained the putt at the 24th.

“It’s a lot easier not going extra holes,” he said after defeating the 35-year-old stockbroker, the reigning Greater Knoxville Amateur champ. “Suddenly, one mistake and you’re gone.”

In a perverse way, that was what a fraction of Woods’s gallery was seeking. A third title would be incredible, but that would come Sunday; if he were to lose in a preliminary round, the number of spectators would be fewer and I-was-there bragging rights would gain cachet. That scare did not materialize as some anticipated Thursday morning, however, as Woods steamrolled Jerry Courville Jr. of Milford, Conn., 4 and 2. A former Walker Cup teammate, the 37-year-old Courville coaxed smiles and conversation from the generally terse Woods, and although he won the fourth for a tenuous lead, Woods won the eighth and then, after Courville hit into the pond at the 143-yard 12th, four of the last five.

Thursday afternoon it was Woods versus Howell, the first time in his streak of Amateur match-play triumphs Woods had faced someone younger. Howell, coming off an 18th-green triumph over Patrick O’Brien of Dothan, Ala., had accepted a handshake from Johnny Miller, working as a television commentator. “This is the match you came here for,” he said. “Yes, sir,” Howell responded. “We missed him in ‘93, we missed him in ‘94 and now we’ve finally got him.”

Howell was tenacious, and through the front nine never led but never trailed by more than a hole. Woods was marking the 382-yard eighth as the point where he kicked in the afterburners. He chipped in for birdie against Manning, caught Courville with a six-foot birdie and shook Howell for the last time as Howell made bogey.

“I didn’t lose 10 and 8, so I’m happy,” Howell said. “He is awesome. I played okay, but I didn’t play as good as I needed to beat Tiger Woods.”

Neither would D.A. Points come Friday’s quarterfinals, for despite his “loose, happy-go-lucky nature,” Woods again prevailed, 3 and 2. Woods won the second and fourth with birdies, but at the seventh ran into the most unlikely scenario: a lost ball. Despite the milling gallery, Woods drove so far off line at the 619-yard hole that five minutes brought scraped arms from the underbrush and a return to the tee. Woods made 7, giving Points the hole, but promptly won the eighth with par and 12th with an insurance birdie.

“I've gotten some pretty good coverage” back in Pekin, III., Points pointed out, “so I’m not totally uncommon to this. But it’s also kind of hard when it feels like you’ve got 2,400 people rooting for Tiger, and you’ve got about 30 people rooting for you.”

With the ranks thinned, the semifinals would pit Stanford teammates Woods and Joel Kribel, and Florida’s Robert Floyd and Scott. Kribel and Floyd share a sort of second-fiddle status: Kribel has distinguished himself as one of the country’s best; winning this year’s Pacific Northwest and Western Amateurs, yet is hidden behind Woods; Floyd is continually referred to as “the son of Raymond Floyd” instead of as a promising prodigy.

Kribel chuckled when he recalled his first brush with Woods, during the 1993 Junior World in San Diego. “He didn’t know who I was, and he blew me off,” Kribel recalled. “I thought he was a little arrogant, but once I got to know him I knew that wasn’t the case.”

Kribel showed stretches of invincibility; he never lost a hole to Donnie Darr of Coshocton, Ohio, in the first round, 7 and 6, then eagled the 18th to defeat Boomer Erick of Marco Island, Fla., in the second. Against Woods he played the outward nine in the equivalent of 32, winning the first and fourth with birdies.

“I was happy being a couple up,” Kribel said, “but I felt that I could have been more up. I had a lot of good looks at it that I missed as well, besides the putts that I made early. When I’m up there inside 20 feet for birdie on probably three holes, and he gets up and down every time and I miss, that was a little disappointing.”

Kribel stayed 2 up until the 11th, where he began to unravel, strangling a bogey while Woods two-putted from 60 feet for birdie, losing the 13th with bogey and watching Woods eagle the 470-yard 14th with a 12-footer.

“You don’t like to leave the door open to anyone, but especially when you’re playing against Tiger,” Kribel said. “If you give him the slightest little opening he’s going to find it and make you pay for it, and that’s what happened.” As the words came from Kribel’s mouth, one could imagine Armour, Kuehne, Marucci and dozens of other vanquished players nodding in agreement.

The Floyd-Scott match was a steady struggle, although Scott birdied the second from seven feet behind the hole and never trailed. Floyd has his streaks in stroke play, witnessed by his second-team All-America status and the 63 shot en route to winning the Dogwood Amateur. In the Amateur he was a come-from-behind threat, three times rallying in the closing holes.

Scott had his number early, and it was Floyd’s frustration that he never got over the hump. Despite twice clawing back to all square, after the ninth and 13th, Floyd surrendered to Scott, 3 and 2, by playing the last three holes 6-3-7.

The match ended at the 432-yard 16th with Floyd’s gut-wrenching triple bogey after Scott snap-hooked his drive and dropped from an unplayable lie. From the center of the fairway Floyd hit over the green into an even worse jungle. With his first swing he advanced the ball seven or eight feet, then came his announcement from deep in the gunch that he’d whiffed. Finally, the ball whistled across the green. Floyd pitched his sixth to 10 feet past, but Scott chipped in from the back of the green.

“I had 180 to the hole, I think 186 to the back of the green, which was a perfect 6-iron,” Floyd said. “I don’t know if I never got into the shot or never got focused, but I did the wrong thing at the wrong time.”

Scott was visibly relieved at progressing further than in ‘95. Prior commitments prevented him from attending the Masters this spring with Floyd and another teammate, Josh McCumber, and now he was in the field for ‘97. But he sobered up when it came to Woods and the even larger crowd expected for Sunday.

“I hope the gallery will clap at good shots,” he said. “Everyone is going to want to see him win three in a row. If he does, he does.”

The crowd at the first tee at 7:15 a.m. lined the hole, tee to green, and was greater than some Amateurs drew for an entire week. The gallery gave an energetic ovation when Woods was introduced, yet Scott deserved the applause by shooting the equivalent of a 68 and going to lunch 5 up. It was nearly as strong a performance as the first 18 Kuehne had thrown at Woods two years earlier at TPC at Sawgrass. Any other foe would have folded.

The scoreboard had Scott for six birdies (fourth, fifth, 10th, 11th, 14th and 18th); combined with Woods’s bogey at the seventh, Scott won four of the par-5 holes and halved the 14th when Woods two-putted from 35 feet. In fact, Woods hit just three fairways and four greens over the first nine, shot the equivalent of a 76 and needed 32 putts.

“You figure [5 up] would be good enough, but against Tiger Woods, no lead is secure,” Scott said.

Woods spent most of the luncheon break on the practice tee with Butch Harmon, his swing instructor, while Jay Brunza, his sports psychologist and the man who accompanied him on that dusk visit to Waverley, stood on deck. Woods’s rhythm, so often a problem early in a round, was again out of whack. He had gone 28 holes without being over par, then lost the third and fifth with double bogeys (the latter with two balls into the pond fronting the green) and bogeyed the seventh and 16th.

After his lunch Scott moved to the tee and promptly glanced his first half-wedge shot off the flagstick. The crowd, reading tea leaves, was mistaken. It was Woods who came out blazing. He had not missed a green in regulation in the morning’s second nine, and when he found the rough at the 19th with a wedge approach, it was the last green he would miss in the final 29 holes. Woods birdied the 21st (2½ feet) and 22nd (two feet), then won the 23rd with par (Scott went over the green off the tee and missed a five-footer to save par). Suddenly the advantage was two holes.

Woods was gaining momentum, winning the 27th with an incredibly long drive and then making a 10-footer for birdie. One down. That’s when Scott countered, holing a delicate, downhill, in-or-25-feet-past pitch from right of the green to a cup cut five paces from the fringe. Woods was 24 feet away, but after Scott’s nearly waist-high jump in exultation, the defender weakly waved the ball toward the hole and left it for his caddie to retrieve. Two down.

Scott birdied the 29th and lost, which tells you how the last eight holes of regulation went. Woods’s approach from 196 yards cleared two towering pines at the second dogleg, and he ran down the 34-footer. One down. Scott claimed the 32nd with a 15-foot eagle. Two up, four left.

Then Woods, as is his wont, really started to play. He birdied the 34th from six feet to get within a hole, only after Scott reminded him to return his ball mark to its original position after moving it out of Scott’s line. It was an act of sportsmanship widely praised, for it showed Scott’s prescience (many people had forgotten the original move) and enlightenment (the Amateur Public Links final had been marred by a frosty silence when the eventual winner, Tim Hogarth, lost a hole by not replacing his marker). If he failed to return the marker to its original spot, Woods loses the hole, the match and a third title.

With the gallery buzzing, Woods won the 35th with a downhill 30-footer that evoked the fist-pumping photos that will be the week’s overriding memory. Halving the 36th with tense pars, Woods missing from 12 feet and Scott from 18 feet to win, they went back to the ninth hole for the first OT Amateur final since Nathaniel Crosby won at the 37th in 1981.

They halved the 37th, Woods on a combination pull-misread from 18 feet and Scott failing along the same line from a stride closer. On to the 194-yard 10th, where Scott had jammed home the pitch shot two hours earlier. Woods, with the honor, kept it left of the flag and was safely on. Scott’s nestled into the right rough, this time on a downhill lie. His pitch rolled seven feet past and, after a measurement with string, Woods was deemed away; his clincher slid 18 inches past. When Scott missed, Woods rolled home his winner.

In his son’s first five championship victories Earl Woods lumbered onto the green to give a tearful embrace. But it was Kutilda Woods who sprinted across the green, reaching her son first. She had never seen him in any of his five victories, and at one point during an early round, with her son comfortably ahead, she was too nervous to answer the simplest question. Woods then hugged his father and other members of his “team” before offering his hand to Scott.

Within an hour Tiger Woods, at the awards ceremony, told the gallery “that the northwest is my lucky haven.” He held the Havemeyer Trophy aloft one last time, with the photographers’ shutters clicking like mad, lowered it and gave it the gentlest kiss. Dusk was turning to darkness on his amateur days. Ahead lay the dawn of a new challenge.

Tiger’s Sixth Sense: Woods smashed the record books with his Amateur comeback. (USGA Museum)

Although Woods was in deep trouble by the 11th hole of the final, the gallery remained behind him. (USGA Museum)

“You figure [5 up] would be good enough, but against Tiger Woods, no lead is secure,” said Scott, who chipped in on the 28th hole. (USGA Museum)