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Then and now – Tiger’s foes feel helpless

Steve Yingling

I guess we should have known.

After all, Tahoe had the unique privilege of witnessing Tiger Woods in his pubescent stage of golfing greatness.

It was during the final round of the 1991 American Junior Golf Association Edgewood Tahoe Junior Golf Classic at Stateline. It was a distant setting from Augusta National and Woods’ incredible 12-shot victory in the Masters on Sunday. But believe me, Woods’ victory at Edgewood was even more unlikely and helped mold him into golf’s equivalent of Michael Jordan today.

In case you were bored by Woods’ two-touchdown green jacket runaway on Sunday, then take a trip back when tournament titles didn’t come so easily for Tiger.

Trailing Scott Johnson of Kennewick, Wash., by two shots with four holes to play in the boys 15-18 age group, Woods looked like he had as much chance of winning as Constantino Rocca did entering the final round of Sunday’s Masters.

Of course, though only a cub, this wasn’t any ordinary Tiger. This boy wonder learned how to grip a golf club before most learn to walk. As a 3-year-old, Tiger played before his first national audience on the Mike Douglas Show. Not long after, the golf prodigy appeared on “That’s Incredible.”

But Johnson treated Woods like an overhyped prize fighter, taking a three-stroke edge after 18 holes. With two more birthdays on his side, Johnson must have thought he had this kid in his rightful place.

Until Sunday – Tiger time.

Some Tiger lore must have started swimming in Johnson’s head as he took his commanding two-shot lead into the pine-tree lined 363-yard par-4 15th hole at Edgewood.

“Usually I get a lead and I hang onto it,” Johnson said.

But a blocked tee shot that drifted behind a pine and five additional strokes later, and an all-square Woods was threatening to steal the tournament Johnson headlined all weekend.

Johnson must have known it was over at that point, considering that two of the final three holes were par 5s – Tiger’s bread and butter then and his green jacket tailor now.

On the signature 16th hole, the future Master sailed his ball 295 yards, leaving him an accessible 250 yards from the hole. Calling on a friendly carom from a wooded area to the left of the green, Woods’ snap hook second-shot miraculously landed on the green, 25 feet from the cup. He two-putted for birdie, and although Johnson also birdied, it took away an edge that Johnson felt he deserved.

“He was 50 yards left of the green and hit a tree and bounced back. I had bad breaks when I thought I was getting good breaks,” Johnson said.

Woods seized a one-shot lead on the par-3 17th hole when Johnson couldn’t record a sandy and clinched the win by nearly holing a 95-yard wedge shot for eagle on the 545-yard finishing hole.

By then, Woods was in one of those zones that the Nick Faldos, Davis Loves and Tom Watsons know all too well.

“I don’t remember hitting (the wedge shot). I was just on automatic pilot then,” said Woods following his 36-hole even-par performance of 144.

Did I mention that Woods played the entire weekend with the flu. Oh, yeah, the legend grows.

Fast-forward to a week ago Monday. This same columnist thought the now 21-year-old Woods’ chief obstacle entering the Masters would be to make the cut. Woods could have coughed up eight of his birdies to Faldo, enabling the defending champion to make the cut, and still won the tournament by four strokes. But how was this sports journalist supposed to know that Woods has a subscription to the Tribune?

Although Tiger made his hay in typical fashion on the par 5s (14 under), he fearlessly demonstrated a magical touch on unforgiving undulating greens that presented more obstacles than a Putt-Putt layout.

Tiger’s dominant performance left his peers speechless and searching for adjectives. Perhaps they realize they no longer stand a chance when Tiger brings his “A Game.”

Moreover, Tiger will only get better. What will they do when he masters his wedge shot and becomes more consistent and accurate with some of his other low irons?

Surely, they’ll feel like Johnson did on that fine October day nearly 66 months ago at Edgewood – helpless!


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