Remembering Tiger Woods’ first PGA Tour win at the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational

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Tiger Woods poses with Las Vegas showgirls after winning the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational for his first PGA Tour victory.

Tiger Woods’ victory Sunday at the Tour Championship was historic. Making a return to the top of his profession after undergoing spinal fusion surgery and assorted other injuries that threatened to end his legendary career is something you just can’t make up.

It was the 80th win of his PGA Tour career, second behind only Sam Snead’s 82.

I was there for the first.

I was covering golf in the 1990s for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and I covered his first PGA Tour win at the Las Vegas Invitational. He beat Davis Love III on the first hole of a playoff on Oct. 6, 1996, at TPC Summerlin.

I first met Woods on the driving range at Legacy Golf Club at an American Junior Golf Association event in Henderson, Nev. He was 14 or 15 at the time, and I walked up to him on the driving range to ask to talk to him. He declined to be interviewed.

I walked away and was trying to find another player to speak with when a man approached me and said, “Excuse me, sir. Are you the reporter who was looking to speak to young Mister Woods?” I said yes but that he didn’t want to talk at that point. I didn’t know the gentleman who’d approached me, but he frowned and said, “Well, he will talk to you now.”

It was Tiger’s father, Earl Woods.

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A young Tiger Woods with his parents, Earl and Tida Woods.

Several years later, Woods was a rookie pro, having left Stanford, and was playing in the Las Vegas Invitational. It was amazing how big Woods was at the time. He’d won three consecutive U.S. Amateur Championships and was as popular as anyone on the PGA Tour, even though Las Vegas was just his fifth Tour event since turning pro two months earlier at the Greater Milwaukee Open. ESPN broke into its NFL coverage to show Woods’ winning putt live and an interview with him on the 18th green.

The Las Vegas Invitational was a 90-hole event in 1996 played on three courses. On Oct. 2, the tournament’s first day, I wrote a profile of Woods that appeared on the front page of the sports section of the Las Vegas Review-Journal to lead the tournament coverage.

Woods opened the tournament at Las Vegas National Golf Club and shot an uninspiring 70. There was, though, big news. He injured his ankle during the  round, which he played with then-Nevada Gov. Bob Miller. There was question whether he’d be able to continue in the tournament.

I wrote another story on that, and it got prominent play in the newspaper. And that didn’t sit well with a number of Tour players at the time, who weren’t pleased with the inordinate amount of attention Tiger received from the media. Fred Funk complained about it when he met with reporters after either the second or third round. He specifically noted my coverage of Tiger.

Of course, I got into it with him, much to the amusement of my good friend, Tim Dahlberg, the legendary Associated Press sports columnist. For years later, whenever we’d see or talk about Funk, one of us would always say, “Bleep Fred Funk!”

Woods put himself into position to win on Saturday when he shot a 9-under 63 at TPC Summerlin. In those days, Woods was consistently driving the ball 20 or 30 yards beyond everyone else, and his distance gave him a great advantage at Summerlin.

The crowds around him were remarkable. The Las Vegas tournament did not draw well in those days, and I remember watching Davis Love III and Fred Couples playing together in front of a handful of people. Literally, 95 percent of the fans who were attending the tournament were following Woods’ group.

He got into a playoff with Love and it was a zoo. It looked like a major with the amount of people around the green. Woods had about a 15-foot birdie putt for the win, but he missed long, rolling it four feet past. Love had a 10-foot par putt that would have forced an extra hole, but he slid it past.

When Woods knocked in the four-footer for par, he had his first win. Butch Harmon, his coach at the time, was the first to meet him on the green, embracing him in a hug. His mother, Tida, also was there.

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Tiger Woods embraces Davis Love III on Oct. 24, 1996, after Woods’ first professional win.

Woods received his trophy and check and in typical Las Vegas fashion, posed with a couple of showgirls.

It was hard to say on that day it was apparent that he would become arguably the greatest golfer in history, but we definitely knew we were watching something special.

He only played in Las Vegas once after that, returning to defend his title in 1997. He’s gone on to unimaginable heights, but it was that Las Vegas event that sent him on his way toward legendary status.

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