When Tiger turned pro in the middle of 1996 not many expected him to do wonders on the pro circuit. He was just a 20-year-old with a freakily successful amateur career, but like 99% of the amateurs, he was bound to take a couple of years to settle on the professional scene and make a mark. Wrong. Tiger didn’t even wait till his first complete year on the circuit before making an impression, he took the tour by storm in 1996 itself.
Heading into the Las Vegas Invitational in early October Tiger was in fine form. The three September tournaments had yielded a 11 place finish and a joint 5th and 3rd place finish. Entering the Invitational, Woods was ranked 221st in the world but that was all about to change.
Tiger came into the final day of the tournament holding a -4 deficit at the top of the standings. He had a stellar second day as he shot 64 over the 9 rounds forcing a playoff against David Love III. David had an opportunity to actually seal the win before the playoff but he missed his birdies on the 17th and 18th holes.
In the playoff, both Tiger and David had similar starts as they hit decent drives dead straight of the middleway. Tiger had a slight advantage as David’s shot placed him further away from the flag in the middle of a green bunker. Tiger’s second for a birdie missed but he was merely 1 foot away from the hole. David’s second shot in return from the punker put him in a putting position too, but over 6 feet out. Tiger put and David needed to do the same to prolong the playoff but he missed leading to the trademark Tiger fist pump. In his first year on the tour, he had secured his maiden win. Later on, David said they all expected Tiger to win a pro tournament, but not so soon!
Tiger pocketed a cool $297,000 for his debut win and also witnessed a huge jump in his ranking which was now up to 75. This was not to be Tiger’s only win of the year. At the Walt Disney World Golf Classic which was played at the picturesque Palm and Magnolia course at the World Disney World in Florida Tiger again triumphed. He ended the year finishing 25th on the annual golf prize money list. To no one’s surprise, he was also named PGA Tour’s rookie of the year.
More laurels followed as he was also named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, an honour which placed him in a distinguished category of sportsmen including Muhammad Ali and Jack Nicklaus. His father mentioned in the cover piece for the magazine that his son was the “Chosen One” and that he had the power to impact not only people but complete nations. And boy oh boy, did Tiger go on to prove his father correct.
A fun trivia fact: Tiger also started wearing his traditional Red T-shirt to the course, a practice which dated back to his college days!