Editor’s Note: This month, Golf Digest is commemorating the 25th anniversary of Tiger Woods turning pro with a special 116-page collector's issue celebrating his career. You can order your copy here.
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A prediction: Tiger Woods will receive the $8 million first-place award of the inaugural Player Impact Program.
At year end, the disbursements for the nine other players will be finalized, all part of the PGA Tour’s response to the still speculative golden lures of a world “super league.” It shall be neither ironic nor surprising when the runaway winner is the guy who didn’t strike a competitive shot in 2021, owing, of course, to back surgery in January followed by the car crash in February. As much as Phil thrilled, Rahm rammed, and Bryson and Brooksy bickered, Tiger still contributes more to golf’s global awareness. Video of his putt from 2008 got more airtime than any other shot from Torrey Pines this year. Google search and Q-rating? That’s a lot of dots on Big Cat’s scorecard.
Such impending compensation only underscores that Woods is an active professional, and so with this special issue we celebrate the 25th anniversary of his pro debut. While our hearts root for Tiger to recover well enough to compete again, for now we mark this milestone.
I caught up with Curtis Strange, who was steps away, practicing putting, when Woods teed off Thursday at the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open. “Very few people ever bother to watch some young kid hit his first shot as a professional. But everyone, players and fans, stopped in their tracks.” The day before, Strange had interviewed Woods about his expectations for the week, the veteran making first forays into what would become a lengthy broadcasting career. When Woods said, “Second sucks, third is even worse,” Strange got a tad huffy and said, “You’ll learn.”
The clip lay dormant for years until the dawn of social media. “It wasn’t meant as derogatory to Tiger, rather that this is a tough game and to expect that much out of yourself will set you up for a lot of disappointment ... I made the mistake of interjecting. I should’ve said it in a more sober way and given him space to respond.” Over dinner together years later, when Woods’ winning percentage was hovering near one-third, Strange told Tiger that he had learned. “His comment changed the way golfers speak to themselves and the public,” Strange says. “The big players today don’t have Tiger’s ability, but they outwardly show similar confidence. Psychologically, it’s a step in the right direction in how to compete.”
Tiger’s influence across so many levels of the game almost can’t be overstated. “His wasn’t just a sports story, it was a general celebrity news story,” says Joe Beditz, president of the National Golf Foundation, the organization that keeps annual tabs on the golf biz. As for the growth of tournament sponsorships and purses over the past quarter-century, “Tiger was directly responsible for much if not most,” Beditz says. The Tiger Woods Foundation, also celebrating 25 years, has helped more than two million kids.
Tiger’s iconic fist pumps, initially interpreted in fusty circles as disrespectful, ultimately revealed much more. They symbolized, as Jaime Diaz wrote, “accomplishing the most difficult thing in this game, which is to be free. To be fully engaged, without inhibition, without indecision, without fear. To release.”
The front and back covers of Golf Digest's 'Tiger: 25 years a pro' special collector's issue.
For most of his career, Tiger Woods has served as Playing Editor for Golf Digest. This access has led to not only instruction articles of unsurpassed authority but also insightful features on his life. The contents of this issue are both new and old, and it’s the gems from our archive that give the experience of reliving the suspense of Tiger’s career all over again.
As for the future, Tiger’s guess is as good as yours. The trauma of this car accident is different than any previous athletic injury. There’s no set timeframe for when certain medical issues will be resolved enough to next think about golf. Word is, Tiger’s spirits are positive, optimistic. If he heals, it’s hard to imagine tireless Tiger won’t give it another try.
For now, call it backpay or a future annuity, but I think Tiger has several Player Impact Awards ahead of him.