Some Disney Magic
Woods always has been coy about releasing his schedule, but early on in his professional journey, the Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic wasn’t on it. Woods had plotted out where his seven starts via sponsor exemptions would be (Milwaukee, Canadian Open, Quad City, B.C. Open, Callaway Gardens, Las Vegas and Texas) and Disney would have been eight starts in as many weeks. Originally, if Plan B was needed, Disney week would be an off-week before Q-School. Woods picked up a start when he withdrew from Callaway Gardens, and it all become moot when he won for the first time in Las Vegas. He could play wherever he wanted. Now, his thoughts turned to a new goal: He was 34th in earnings after another great finish at the Texas Open (third), and top 30 would make the TOUR Championship at Southern Hills. Could Woods possibly qualify for the TOUR Championship in just seven starts?
Mike McPhillips, who later would work for the PGA TOUR, was the tournament director at Disney, and he was keeping close tabs on Woods’ progress week to week, making contingency plans if he decided to show up. (“We at Disney have already had the Lion King,” McPhillips quipped. “Now we’re looking for the sequel.”) Operationally, there are TOUR events and there are Tiger TOUR events. When the phone call arrived inside the tournament office that Woods was committing to play in his new hometown event, McPhillips stood up from his chair, told his staff the great news, and then ran out, fully clothed, and did the most joyous cannonball ever into a nearby pool.
Back then, the local newspaper often would put together a special section that would run the Sunday prior to the tournament’s start. On the budget at this point were stories about Tiger, Tiger, Tiger and Tiger. With a Tiger sidebar, of course, and a few Tiger charts. Frankly, the veteran players respected what he was achieving, but they also were growing weary from having to incessantly talk about him. Every question they faced in every city seemingly had some connection to the game’s new wunderkind.
More than a handful of players I had approached for interviews heading into the Disney event declined (some more than politely than others) or had curt answers when I approached with my Tiger questions.And then there was Payne Stewart. He always was one of a kind. I was told when I took over the golf beat that Stewart would be one of my tougher “local” subjects, that he could be moody at times and at others would choose not to talk at all. Truthfully, I had known him for a while from starts at Bay Hill and Disney, and we got along fine. He loved talking about his craft, and I enjoyed listening to what he had to say. Still, I thought he might be inside the camp of being Tigered-out when I approached him in front of the tiny players’ locker room that players from the Magnolia and Palm courses shared a few days before the tournament. He was chomping hard on gum, as he often did, and stretching on a door overhang when I approached.
“Got a few minutes to chat?” I asked.
“About what?” Stewart said somewhat mischievously, fully knowing the answer. “Tiger,” I said. At least I was honest.
Stewart paused, chomping on that gum. That usually wasn’t a good sign. This time, fortunately, it was.“I’ll talk about that guy all day long,” he said.
And then he went on to detail why he’d talk All Things Tiger, approaching this in a light that other players just were not seeing at the time.
“Tiger Woods has created an unbelievable interest in our TOUR, and that’s increased interest in our jobs, and that’s kept Corporate America looking at our TOUR year-round,” Stewart said. “It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out that, hey, he’s good for my business.”
God bless Payne Stewart.
A few days later, there they were on the back nine of the Mag, Tiger and Payne, battling for the trophy. It was one of the most electric days I ever have witnessed in all my years in golf. There were 20,000 fans that day, and every single one seemed to be watching Woods and Stewart. We had three sports writers, a photographer and a columnist from The Sentinel there that day, and at one point on the back nine, kneeling next to a green, I looked around to count all five of us there. OK, so much for the rest of the tournament. Tiger Woods can suck all the air of the room, or from a 7,200-yard golf course, like nobody else can.
Woods shot 66, Stewart shot 67, and Woods won by a shot. (A forgotten sidenote: The late Taylor Smith also shot 21-under that week, which was Woods’ winning total, but was disqualified because the lower of his two split grips on his long putter had a flat side; the grips were not uniform.)
Suddenly, Woods and Mickey Mouse were standing on a green and one of them was bound for the TOUR Championship. Woods had a pedestrian week he’d soon forget at Southern Hills, tying for 21st. He shot only one round in the 60s (final-round 68) and was stressed because of health problems that his father, Earl, had been experiencing that week in Tulsa.
It did little to diminish what he’d done in a matter of weeks. When the last putt dropped in Tulsa, here were his official numbers in eight starts as a professional: Two wins, two thirds, five consecutive finishes of T-5 or better, 22 of 31 rounds in the 60s, and seven rounds of 66 or better. He earned nearly $100,000 per start ($790,594). Oh, and he was named PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year.
A few months later, in April of 1997, Woods would win the Masters by 12 shots at age 21, and things would really take off. Woods tied the all-time PGA TOUR victory mark (82) and has captured 15 major titles. The wick that ignited it all, set off the launchpad if you will, will forever be that magical late summer and early fall of 1996. Those first days and weeks of Tiger, exhibiting his innate drive and determination; PGA TOUR card or bust. Every moment of it was beautiful to watch, and we were privileged to be there. It’s a journey we may never witness again.