Tiger Woods promptly won two PGA Tour titles in 1996 after turning pro earlier that summer. But perhaps, the first real glimpse of just how clutch the budding superstar would be on tour came the following January.
Twenty years ago, the PGA Tour’s yearly opener -- then called the Mercedes Championship -- was still held at La Costa (It would move to Kapalua's Plantation Course in 1999). The San Diego area is supposed to be immune from bad weather (Trust me, I have to hear about it every time I talk to my parents who re-located there), but at the 1997 event, it was anything but. Amid heavy rain, the tour decided a full round couldn't be played on Sunday and instead, there would be a sudden-death playoff between 54-hole co-leaders Tiger Woods and Tom Lehman, who were five shots clear of anyone else.
With rain still falling, Lehman, the reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year, and Woods, who would win that honor in 1997 after a campaign that included his landmark Masters victory, made their way out to the par-3 seventh -- deemed the only playable hole on the course under the conditions. Lehman, who was a fellow vice captain with Woods at the recent Ryder Cup, hit first on the 188-yard hole and found the pond with his tee shot. Barring a similar mistake by Woods, the tournament was over, but as we’ve been reminded so many times throughout the years, Tiger Woods has a way of making things exciting.
Woods took an aggressive line just right of the flagstick. And he nearly knocked it down. Check out his bold -- and brilliant -- shot:
The tap-in birdie gave Woods three PGA Tour titles in just nine starts as a pro. More amazing is how long Woods -- now with 79 wins, including 14 majors -- maintained that blistering pace of racking up victories.
Poor Tom Lehman. You get the feeling that no matter what he did on that soggy day, the youngster dressed in red was going to walk away with the trophy. And after, he dubbed T-Dub the "Player of The Next Two Decades." Sounds about right.