TIGER’S ROAR: Woods claims first PGA Tour win in Las Vegas, Oct. 6, 1996
Score one for the “one picture/thousand words” theory when you eyeball this photo:
Tiger Woods, fronted by a trophy and flanked by bejeweled, hubba-hubba– showgirls, whose feathery headdresses dwarf his black, Nike-endorsement cap. Oh — and Tiger’s 1,000-watt grin that could lay an inferiority complex on the sun.
Nothing could scream Las Vegas golf milestone more than that snapshot.
You can trace the rocket ride of Tiger Woods’ storied professional career to a launching pad at TPC Summerlin where Woods emerged victorious for his first PGA Tour win at the Las Vegas Invitational (now the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open).
“Because he won it here, it became a real important footnote for our tournament,” says local author/public speaker Jack Sheehan, who emceed the victory ceremony for Woods on the 18th green, and reminisced about the tournament with Las Vegas Newswire. “You can always go back to the fact that Tiger’s first tournament win was in Las Vegas. People never forget that.”
Neither does the entire sports world.
At age 20, Woods had already won three U.S. Amateur Championships, becoming as popular as any PGA tour player. By the time he got to Las Vegas — only his fifth tour event after going pro a mere two months before at the Greater Milwaukee Open — Woods was a genuine phenom.
That elevated the 90-hole Las Vegas tourney, which had previously been a spottily-attended affair. Undercutting enthusiasm for it, Sheehan says, was its mid-NFL-season scheduling and TPC’s hills-and-dips layout being difficult for spectators to navigate. What it needed, it turned out, was an injection of Tiger blood.
“The first thing I noticed the year Tiger won is it was a multiethnic gallery (crowd of spectators) and I’d never seen that before,” Sheehan says. “Minorities just didn’t go to this tournament. There were not just African-Americans, but Asians and Hispanics. Tiger was new on the scene but the arc was this guy was going to be a star, and maybe a superstar. The sense was that Tiger was a real gift to the Las Vegas Invitational.”
Injury and jealousy upped the drama quotient when Woods hurt his ankle during a round he played with then-Gov. Bob Miller, raising doubts about him making it through the tournament. And reportedly, several tour players were resentful of massive media attention swarming around the young up-and-comer, as well as the obsessive attention of fans who kept sprinting to view Woods’ next shot.
Yet Woods went on to notch his victory, beating Davis Love III — a 10-time PGA Tour champ and eventual World Golf Hall of Famer — on the playoff’s first hole, in front of a crowd that included his mother, Tida. Observing the Tiger Man’s prowess, Golfweek magazine invoked a Siegfried & Roy analogy: “Those magicians’ white tigers on the Strip were second-string felines.”
So intense was Woods mania that ESPN cut into its NFL coverage to bring viewers his winning putt, which netted him a $297,000 winner’s paycheck and catapulted him into a spot at the 1997 Masters, which he would dominate.
“We’ve got to get used to it,” Love, his vanquished opponent, told Golfweek. “I think everybody had better watch out. He’s going to be a force.”
Now one concurred more than Woods, as Sheehan discovered when he interviewed the victor, post-tournament.
“I said, ‘This is your fifth event as a professional and here you are in the winner’s circle. Are you surprised it happened this quickly?’” Sheehan recalls. “And he came back with a dead-eyed stare and said, ‘To be honest, I’m surprised I took this long.’ That’s a cocky but great line and it was sincere. He expected to win right out of the chute. He knew the minute he came on the tour that he was the man. His comment to me was his way of saying, ‘Step back, there’s a new sheriff in town.’”
After The Tiger Man leapt from amateur to professional, it was Las Vegas that got to watch this gifted, club-swinging cat earn the first of his legendary stripes.