They looked like a couple of caddies who had somehow snuck onto the country-club course on a Sunday afternoon. And so it was that they represented the best of a down, and downsizing, year in sports. The baseball players went out on strike, the hockey owners locked out the players, and even a local track owner threatened to put horse racing out to pasture next summer. It was such a bad year that it should come as no surprise that the event of 1994 was an amateur contest--not "amateur" as in the Olympics, even though Dan Jansen's gold-medal victory was the single most stirring sports moment of the year, but truly amateur, as in the U.S. Amateur Golf Championship.
It seems to have received little attention here (we were out of town at the time), and it was soon forgotten by all but the most fervid golf fans--that is, by anyone who failed to sit through the slow but dramatic buildup of tension the match provided on television--but Tiger Woods's first major championship was the real deal, the sort of story that will always both thrill and revitalize sports fans. There is a new champion on the scene, he won his first major title in truly great fashion, and he looks to be the next great figure in golf, a player who could single-handedly redefine the sport's strengths while widening its appeal.
Woods looked the part of an amateur when he stepped onto the demanding Tournament Players Club-Sawgrass Stadium course in Florida that last Sunday in August. He wore a baggy short-sleeve polo shirt, baggy shorts, and ankle socks. In his one bow to the pro golfer dress code, Woods wore a wide-brim straw hat. His opponent, Trip Kuehne, was dressed exactly the same, except that he completed his scruffy look with a baseball cap bearing the slogan No Fear and worn low across the brow to emphasize the point. They looked like a couple of kids because they were a couple of kids: Kuehne was a 22-year-old junior from Oklahoma State, Woods an 18-year-old about to enter Stanford. Yet both played like grizzled competitors. The match went right down to the 36th hole, with Woods taking his first lead on the 35th hole of the day, the demanding par-three 17th at Sawgrass, one of the toughest tests in golf, where he hit the sort of shot only legends hit.
Although only 18, Woods was pegged for greatness years ago. Serious golf fans began taking note of him when he was 15, with his first U.S. Junior Championship. He went on to win two more and then the prestigious Western Amateur earlier this year in Michigan. Immediately after that tournament, he got caught in Chicago traffic on the way to O'Hare Airport, missed his scheduled flight, and had to take a red-eye to get home to California in time to play a qualifying round for the U.S. Amateur the next day. He made it, but that little dramatic tangent was typical of Woods's career thus far.
His whole persona seems the stuff of myth--beginning with that terrific name--and the most important irrelevant detail of that mythos is that Woods is of African American heritage. Not only does this attract an undeserved amount of attention in the golf world, where tournaments played at "restricted" clubs caused something of a scandal in the sport only a couple of years ago; it also leaves him open to immense pressures. Woods is seen as a player who could do even more for golf than Michael Jordan did for basketball.
Much of this pressure is hooey, of course, but the amazing thing about Woods is how often his golf game lives up to these immense expectations. He was expected to do well in this, his fourth U.S. Amateur, a week-long test in which early medal rounds determine pairings for match play, where the player who wins the most holes advances, single elimination, as in a tennis tournament. One bad day at that point would cost a player the tournament. In the sweet 16 round on Thursday, Woods was three holes down to former U.S. Amateur champion Buddy Alexander with only five to play. Yet Woods charged, Alexander choked (he did not par any of the last six holes), and Woods advanced to the quarterfinals. And that bit of Houdini escape artistry was but a hint of what Woods would display in the final.
Part of what made the final extraordinary was the quality of the competition. While all eyes were on Woods in the quarter- and semifinals, Kuehne quietly advanced to the final as something of a surprise. Going into the tournament, he wasn't even considered the strongest entry from Oklahoma State. Yet he displayed a textbook golf swing, and as the 36-hole match-play final began he was striking the ball fiercely from the opening drive. He was clearly a solid fundamental player whose game had peaked at the right time.
Match play is a strange variation on golf. Putts are conceded and balls are simply picked up when a hole is won. Yet Kuehne shot what was estimated to be a 66 on the opening round while going four up, that is, taking a four-hole lead. He birdied seven of the first 13 holes, and at one point he was six up. Woods had taken a couple back to close the morning round, but that could hardly be called much of a charge. He later said, sure, he'd been six down before, but he'd never been six down and won. It looked as if the fates had a stern lesson in mind for Woods. Like Bobby Jones before him, he was going to have to be humbled before he could claim greatness.
That's where we joined them on ABC's TV coverage of the afternoon round. Truth be told, we probably wouldn't have made time to watch if we hadn't been on the first day of vacation, visiting in-laws who are avid golf fans. Somewhat jet-lagged, we parked ourselves in front of the TV for the duration, as Brent Musburger brought us up to date. Here, we imagined, was where Woods would begin his charge, but first he dropped another hole to go five down. Kuehne stumbled a little before the turn, but he was still three up with nine to play. And Woods was all over the place.
ABC did a splendid job comparing their swings side by side in slow motion. Kuehne's swing was picture perfect. While Woods's was hardly as unusual as, say, Miller Barber's, it was not a textbook golf swing: he is a little short on his backswing, and a little wristy on the downswing. As he advances in golf, this swing will no doubt be his Achilles' heel. But on this afternoon he demonstrated time and again what he possessed to atone for these fundamental flaws: an amazing ability to improvise, to find the right shot in dangerous circumstances and execute it.
Unfortunately, Musburger soon proved himself temperamentally out of sync with match-play golf. Unlike a golf tournament, where there is action on every hole and the coverage can pick and choose the moment, match play has only two players, and there is nothing to fill the walking time and the moments spent sizing up shots. Early on, both Woods and Kuehne were liberal at conceding holes and putts. Later, however, they developed what one ABC commentator referred to as "lockjaw" and conceded nothing; make the putts, they seemed to say to one another, and you'll have nothing to complain about. Musburger couldn't stand it. And as the pace slowed and the pressure built--the most delicious aspect of the event, from where we were sitting--he got more and more grouchy. It all but ruined the match.
When Kuehne dropped two holes before the turn, the door opened for Woods. But it wasn't until Woods birdied the 11th that he appeared ready to answer the challenge. Kuehne dropped another hole--he was now only one up with five to play--but then Woods drove into the woods on both 14 and 15. Both times, however, he saved pars by hitting extraordinary shots around obstacles and running them onto the green. Like the tiger he is nicknamed after (his real name is Eldrick), he seemed to prowl the underbrush only to lash out unexpected. Kuehne, meanwhile, had regained his footing. He had stumbled, but he had not choked, and he continued to play solid golf. Then Woods birdied the 16th to tie the match, and they went to the 17th hole.
The Sawgrass course is not tremendously old--I believe it was opened in the late 70s--but the 17th has already established itself as one of the great holes in golf. It's a 139-yard par three, but the green is small and, what's more, it's an islandlike bulb at the end of a thin peninsula. More than a few pro golfers have taken double figures here by dumping several shots into the water. The pin placement was in the most demanding spot on the green: deep and in the far right corner. Woods, with the honors, hit first and played utterly without caution. He hit a wedge straight at the stick. It drifted, however, to the right. Somehow it landed in the thin bit of green between the hole and the water, hopped once, landed on the foot-wide patch of fringe between the green and the drop-off--and stopped like a dart. It was a tremendous shot. Woods lined up the demanding 16-foot putt and stroked it in as if he were playing miniature golf. When it dropped, he showed emotion for the first time of the day by punching at the air and stalking across the green.
A photo of Woods punching the air was on the front page of the New York Times the following day, after he had claimed victory with a par on the final hole. (There Kuehne missed a putt for par and conceded Woods's lengthy remaining putt--a fitting last gesture of sportsmanship.) A series of photos showing Woods striding across the 17th green was in Sports Illustrated later in the week. (Unfortunately, the event was all but lost in the National Football League preview issue.) Bad TV commentary couldn't mar this event, but a splendid deadline story by Larry Dorman in the Times and a deeper analysis by Tim Rosaforte in SI embellished it in the way good sports journalism should. Woods's victory in the U.S. Amateur was the complete championship: delightful in the moment, enriched by the retelling. It renewed faith in sport at a time when, with the baseball strike but two weeks old, that faith seemed utterly misplaced.