Before I begin, I want to say these are my stories and my interpretation of how things actually happened. LOL
I’m known for two things in my career (at least in my mind).
1. I GAVE Tiger Woods his first victory on TOUR.
2. I spent 9 hours, 12 minutes and 32 seconds giving Cindy Crawford golf lessons.
Here is the story about #1. The year is 1996 and I’m playing in the Las Vegas Invitational. I was having my best year on TOUR. It was the earliest I had ever secured my exempt playing status for the following year. Meaning I had no stress about having to go back through TOUR School at the end of the season. It was a play to win mentality for the last month of the season. I felt like I could now attack every single pin. Vegas is an exciting place, there is action 24/7. It’s a pro-am format, five rounds on three different courses. The last two rounds are at TPC Summerlin. Right up my alley. I Iove interacting with my amateur partners and Vegas is my kind of town. The weather was perfect which meant the scores were going to be low. I come out of the gate and shoot 69-69 the first two rounds. My last three rounds were at TPC Summerlin. Tiger shoots 70-63. Davis Love III (who I usually leave out of this story because it makes my version better) shoots 66-67. Third round I really get going with a 65. It’s a horserace and there are a lot of thoroughbreds in the field. 4th round, I drop another 65. I’m sitting pretty on the leaderboard (could it be my week?). Tiger is only playing in his fifth tournament since turning Pro and has shot 68-67 in rounds 3 and 4. Davis shot 64 in the 3rd round and followed up with a 68 in the 4th round. The leaderboard is littered with names like Mickelson, Couples, Azinger and Calcavecchia. Mark Calcavecchia ended up being my playing partner for the 5th and final round.
Tiger teed off in front of us and had a massive crowd. Davis was in the last group. Calc and I were in between. I truly felt like it was going to be my day. Buck Moore was on the bag and he felt the same way. We were ready. Front nine goes along as expected. The players are all making runs for the lead, the scores are low. We were witnessing Tiger’s theatrics early. He was making putts from everywhere. I honestly thought our biggest concern would be Davis Love III. My ball striking for the week was absolutely on point so there was no fear in being aggressive. I begin to heat up going through the back nine. On the 11th hole we watched Tiger hit an amazing shot from the far right rough that he managed to land on the green. He followed that up with what seemed like a 40 footer. Calc looked over at me and said “this guy is unbelievable.” 13th hole is a par five and I hit a great drive had 2 iron in for my second. Ball lands pin high in two, I almost make the putt for eagle, missed it by less than a quarter of an inch. It’s the first of several putts that would barely slide by. 14th hole is a par three, hit it right over the pin and two putt for par. The 15th hole was a drivable par 4. If my memory is correct (and I think there is video to back this up) I almost made a hole in one. After the ball stopped it was about 20-30 feet past the pin. I hit my putt and it looks good Buck starts to walk it in, I have my hands in the air like it’s in the middle of the cup, but for some unknown reason it did not go in. It still baffles me to this day how that putt did not go in the hole (trust me I have seen the video a few times). Buck thought I made it, I thought I made it. I am now in the lead with 3 holes to go. Grant Waite, fellow TOUR professional and my good friend, had finished his round and had come out to watch me play the last three holes and offer his support. I’ll never forget that. The #16 is a par 5 with water guarding the front of the green and bunkers in the rear. It is reachable in two for the longer hitters. On the tee there is a pause in play as we wait for Tiger’s group to clear the fairway. Calc is also in contention and he always plays aggressive and fast, I know he is going to go for the green if he hits a good drive. I was in the zone but this was new territory for me. I can feel the adrenaline pumping in my veins, my breathing was short and quick. I am trying every technique imaginable to stay calm. It’s time to go for it. I swing about Mach three with my driver and push it right. One of the only times I missed the fairway all day. Buck tries to slow walk me down the fairway. As we approach the ball I can see it sitting up perfectly on top of the grass but it’s on a fairly decent side hill lie. My brain is going 100 mph and Buck is trying to reel me in. I ask him what the yardage was to the pin and he looked at me like I was crazy. I told him I was playing to win. He didn’t say anything. I said “do you want me to lay up?” He says “I sure do.” I say “give me the 3 iron, I don’t want to regret laying up and losing.” He hands it to me with confidence and says “knock it on.” I over swing and pulled it. The grass grabbed the heel of the club and took some of the hit off the ball. It lands 1 or 2 yards short in the water. Gary Koch in the TV tower commented that this was a risky play and I should have laid up. It’s not over yet. I walk up, take a penalty shot and drop 100 yards out. I wedge it onto the green but and it spins back almost going into the water again. Now I have a 20 footer for par. I bury the putt right in the middle this time. I still have a chance.
17th is a 205 yard par three slightly downhill with lake on the left and bunkers on the right. Pin is tucked left by the lake. All week players were bailing out into the right bunkers. This was one of the toughest holes on the course and it was a Sunday pin. There was no debate this time on club selection. It was a 5 iron from go. It started at the pin and cut maybe one yard, it hit pin high about 6-8 feet right of the hole then released about 35 feet past the hole. It felt like one of the best iron shots I had ever hit under pressure. My first putt comes up about 2 feet short. Everything in Las Vegas rolls down valley from the mountains towards the Vegas strip. I forgot that I was putting uphill. From the back of the green it felt and looked like I was putting downhill when I hit my first putt. I missed the 2 footer. Now I can’t breathe. I need a miracle on #18. Tiger finishes his final round with a 64. I now have to hole out my second shot to tie him for the lead. Pin was tucked dangerously on the left side near the lake again; most guys were playing to the middle of the green. I went right at it and wound up pin high about 12 feet left of the hole near the fringe. I normally don’t add this part in my story but I did make the putt to shoot my third 65 in a row. Davis made the eagle putt that I missed on 15 and birdied the 16th. He and Tiger finished regulation play tied at -27 under, 332 total. Tiger beat him on the first playoff hole. Tiger won his first tournament and secured his invitation to the 1997 Masters. By April of 1997, the legend of Tiger was in full flight. Who finishes a tournament 65-65-65 and still loses by 1? Yours truly. But if you look at the tape, I was only inches away from making a number of putts late on the back nine. The story of my career LOL. That one bad decision to go for the green on the 16th hole still haunts me to this day. Buck was right, I should have laid up. Back home in New Orleans at my parents’ house, my dad threw his shoe at the television and walked out in disappointment to the back porch when I missed that 2 footer on the 17th hole. My mom stayed in front of the TV to watch me play the 18th. I made birdie and she started screaming. Dad runs back in thinking I made eagle and yells out “that’s my boy!” My mom quickly replies with scowling face “I guess that was my boy on 17 huh?” She was still mad he threw a shoe at the TV. Here’s the funny part of the story. It’s an ESPN Classic and every year during the Las Vegas week they replay it because it’s Tiger’s first win. And every year like clockwork, my phone lights up with texts saying “I really think you’ll win this year if you lay up on the 16th hole.” “Make sure you hit your 2nd putt firm on the 17th.” “BTW, it looks like you’ve been working out. Digging the muscles and the mullet.” I usually reply to the texts by saying “turn off your TV because it’s ended the same way for the last 22 years.”
Tiger has heard my version of this tournament and he just laughs at me. I told my wife, he made $297,000 that day, I made $97,000. Since then he has made about $500,000,000 and I’ve made about $500,000. It’s only a few zeros. Who’s counting anyway.
Cheers to Tiger! I hope he wins his 6th green jacket this fall at the 2020 rescheduled Masters.