This week marks the 25-year anniversary of Tiger Woods’ first PGA TOUR victory, a playoff win over Davis Love III at the Las Vegas Invitational – now known as the Shriners Children’s Open.
Of his 82 PGA TOUR titles, Woods’ breakthrough victory in the desert has some anomalies about it. Firstly, it’s the only time Woods won a 90-hole event in his PGA TOUR career. The Shriners Children’s Open played as a five-round event through 2003, before reverting to a traditional 72-hole format in 2004. The last official 90-hole event contested on the TOUR was the 2011 Bob Hope Classic (now known as The American Express).
It also marks the worst opening-round position by Woods in any of his 82 PGA TOUR wins. After the opening round, Tiger was in a tie for 97th place, eight shots behind leader Keith Fergus. The only other time Woods was outside the top-60 after round one and won a PGA TOUR event was at the 2009 Buick Open, when he was tied for 95th place after the opening day.
Let’s look back on Woods’ first victory – and the bolt of lightning that was his Rookie of the Year campaign in the fall of 1996.
Winning Young and Often
Woods’ first career victory came at the age of 20 years, 9 months and 6 days old – making him the youngest winner on TOUR in more than five years. In a precursor of the ties that would bind their careers for a generation, Woods was the youngest to win on TOUR since Phil Mickelson, who did it about 2 ½ months younger as an amateur at the 1991 Northern Telecom Open. Woods was the youngest professional to win on TOUR since Raymond Floyd, who was 20 years, 6 months old when he picked up his first title, the St. Petersburg Open.
Woods’ second win, the Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic later that month, made him the youngest two-time PGA TOUR winner since Ralph Guldahl in 1932. Woods was – and remains – the youngest player to win twice in the same PGA TOUR season since World War II.
Woods’ youth stuck out even more dramatically in 1996 than it would have today. That season, only 14 of 44 official PGA TOUR victories were claimed by players in their 20s. Woods himself accounted for two-thirds of the PGA TOUR wins that season by players under age 25 (Justin Leonard, age 24, won the Buick Open).
In the fall of 1996, Woods joined Ben Crenshaw as the only players to win the individual NCAA Championship and a PGA TOUR event in the same year. Since then, Matthew Wolff (in 2019) has joined the legendary duo. Woods remains the only player to win twice on the PGA TOUR and win the NCAA Division I individual title in the same year.
Woods won the 1996 U.S. Amateur earlier that year, his third consecutive victory in that event and sixth consecutive USGA title after winning the U.S. Junior Amateur in 1991, 1992 and 1993. Woods is the only player in the modern era of the PGA TOUR to win the U.S. Amateur and a PGA TOUR event in the same year. The overall lack of victories by U.S. Amateur champions in recent years speaks to the magnitude of this achievement: since 2010, Bryson DeChambeau (2015 champion) and Viktor Hovland (2018 champion) are the only players to win the U.S. Amateur and go on to win a PGA TOUR event at any point – let alone in the same season.
Power and Precision
The week of his victory in Las Vegas, Woods averaged 322.6 yards off the tee. Not only was that a then-record for longest average driving distance by a winner on TOUR, it hammered the old mark by nearly 10 full yards. Before Woods, the official record was 312.9 yards by Greg Norman at the 1986 Kemper Open. At the time, Woods was just the fourth PGA TOUR winner to average more than 300 yards off the tee that week.
Woods’ iron play showed a glimpse of what was to come, as well. Tiger hit 80% of his greens in regulation for the week, and 16 in each of the last two rounds. Woods has 15 PGA TOUR wins where he hit 80% of his greens in regulation or more. Over the last 40 seasons, no other player has more than 8 (Phil Mickelson).
His short game was equally sharp that week in Nevada, as he scrambled successfully 14 of 18 times. It would be nearly 20 years before another player would average 320 or more off the tee, hit 80% or more greens in regulation, and scramble at a clip of 75% or better in the week they won a PGA TOUR event. Over the last 40 seasons, there have been more than 1,700 official PGA TOUR victories recorded. Only 3 of them pulled off that trifecta: Woods, Jason Day at the 2015 NORTHERN TRUST, and Dustin Johnson at the 2019 WGC-Mexico Championship.
Tiger did not play in enough rounds to officially qualify for statistical titles in 1996, but if he did, he would have obliterated what was then the record for single-season driving distance average. Woods averaged 302.8 yards off the tee in his abbreviated campaign, 14 yards longer than the official 1996 leader, John Daly (288.8). The difference between Woods’ average and Daly’s was the about the same as the official differential between Daly and No. 30 on the list, Andy Bean (274.7 yards). Daly would not pass 300 yards as a single-season average until the 1997 season.
Woods also hit more than 71% of his greens in regulation in the 1996 PGA TOUR season, which would have ranked him sixth on TOUR if he had enough rounds to qualify. No player would officially average 300+ yards off the tee and hit 70% or more greens in regulation on the PGA TOUR until eight years later, when both Vijay Singh and Chris Smith did it.
The wiry 1996 version of Woods was like nothing golf had ever seen before. The following April, in his first major championship appearance as a professional, he would turn the sports world upside-down with a dozen-shot runaway victory at Augusta National. It took Woods less than a calendar year to ascend to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking. While the fall of 1996 wasn’t the quite the legend in full flight, it gave the golf world a sampling of what was to come.