A look back at Tiger Woods’ first PGA TOUR start, a quarter-century later
Tiger Woods was 16 years old when he made his first PGA TOUR start, at the 1992 Nissan Open. He weighed just a spindly 140 pounds and had recently stopped using persimmon woods.
He would one day become the world’s most famous athlete, but Woods needed permission from the principal’s office to compete that week at Riviera Country Club.
His time there may have been short — he missed the cut after shooting 72-75 — but the education he received was more important than anything he would have learned during his sophomore year at Western High School.
“It was a life-changing moment for me,” Woods says now.
In the 25 years since that first start, Woods has won 79 times on the PGA TOUR, including 14 majors, while impacting the sport in ways few have equaled. He returns to Riviera this week as tournament host, his Tiger Woods Foundation now running the Genesis Open.
He will not compete because of a back injury, but the silver anniversary of his first start is still worth remembering.
Those who watched Woods play in 1992 were impressed with the teenager’s poise and raw talent, but he was humbled after his two rounds at Riviera. He finished 17 shots behind 36-hole leader Davis Love III. Woods realized he had more work to do before joining the professional ranks, which he did 4-1/2 years later.
“It was a learning experience. I learned I wasn’t that good,” Woods said after missing the cut. “I learned I have a long way to go. I’m not competitive at this level. I am at the junior level, but not at the pro level. These guys are so much better.
“I didn’t think I was ready for it, and it showed me that I’m not. I just have to grow up, that’s all.”
Woods, who hit balls on national TV when he was 2 years old, faced a new level of media attention at Riviera. He was pursued by a pack of cameramen and journalists as he walked off the 18th green after shooting 72 in the first round.
“I would like to stand behind the curtain a little longer,” Woods said that week. “But I guess this tournament brought me out.”
His appearance on the PGA TOUR exposed him to a new audience. His fame only continued to grow.
“It changed a lot. I was known more nationally now,” Woods told PGATOUR.COM in January. “When I played junior tournaments and amateur tournaments, more people came out. I don’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. It was just an awareness of this new, young kid coming up, Tiger Woods.
“It was a very different world post-1992.”
THE FIRST SHOT
Woods teed off at 8:28 a.m. in the first round of the tournament then known as the Nissan Open. According to Sports Illustrated, Woods would’ve normally been in Glenn Taylor’s advanced geometry class at Western High School.
Woods was on Riviera’s tiny first tee, which sits some 70 feet above the fairway, instead. Fans were flowing out of the Riviera clubhouse, filling its balconies to witness the historic moment.
Video of that tee shot has been shown countless times in the week’s leading up to the Genesis Open. Woods marvels at the uninhibited swing of his younger self.
“I was skinny, but just the pure speed of my body, I wish I could do that again,” he said in January.
He was nervous as he embarked on his first PGA TOUR round, but his 3-wood tee shot found the fairway. He compared the feeling to rigor mortis.
“I teed the ball up and I was totally fine with my practice swings, no big deal,” Woods recalled. “I get over the golf ball, no big deal. Look down the fairway, like ho hum, it’s an easy tee shot from No. 1 at Riv.
“I take it back and the club felt like it weighed like eight tons. I didn’t know if I could get it to the top of my swing. … I’d never felt the club get that heavy. I was nervous, like I always am before an event, but I had never felt so awkward going back.”
He two-putted for birdie on the first hole. It was his only birdie of the day, but he made just two bogeys and shot a respectable 1-over 72 in the first round. He was tied for 89th, eight shots behind leader Wayne Levi.
Woods’ appearance at Riviera was more than a year in the making.
Greg McLaughlin, the Nissan Open’s tournament director, had tried to invite Woods in 1991, but the tournament’s board rejected the idea.
Woods tried to Monday qualify instead, and came to the final hole with a shot at making it into the field. He needed eagle on Los Serranos Country Club’s par-5 18th, but his 3-wood second shot found the water.
Woods won the U.S. Junior Amateur, the first of six consecutive USGA championships, later that year. That accomplishment, and Woods’ close call at the Monday qualifier, convinced the tournament board to invite the local phenom. Woods lived with his parents in Cypress, California, about an hour from Riviera.
McLaughlin got Woods’ number from the phone company’s directory assistance. He extended the invitation in fall 1991, several months before the tournament.
“Earl (Woods, Tiger’s father) answers the phone and, I’m a young person, only been in the business for a short time, … and I’m pretty intimidated talking to the guys,” McLaughlin recalls. “And I said, ‘Mr. Woods, Greg McLaughlin, Nissan Los Angeles Open. I wanted to talk to you about extending your son an exemption to play in the L.A. Open at Riviera.’
“Earl always had these pauses, these long pauses. So he pauses – I mean he says nothing, and I don’t have any idea where this conversation is going to go. I’ll never forget, he says, ‘My son would be honored to play in the L.A. Open.’”
Tiger played several practice rounds at Riviera in the following months. His caddie was a Riviera looper named Ron “Graphite” Matthews who’d caddied for Amy Alcott on the LPGA.
Soon after, McLaughlin and tournament chairman Rich Davis played at Riviera with Tiger and Earl.
“I don’t know what I was expecting. I guess I was expecting kind of a professional to come walking in, and he’s a 15-year-old kid,” said McLaughlin, who served as the president and CEO of the Tiger Woods Foundation from 1999 to 2014.
“The interesting thing was how little Earl offered up advice. I was expecting a very controlling, directive parent. … I was kind of surprised at how many decisions about his golf game Tiger made. Earl was focused on his own game.”
McLaughlin remembers asking Earl if Tiger would use sports psychologist Jay Brunza, Tiger’s caddie in amateur events, or Matthews in the Nissan Open. Earl’s reply showed that Tiger was in charge of his game.
“That’s Tiger’s deal. He makes that decision. You have to talk to him,” Earl said, according to McLauglin.
Tiger picked Matthews, who said Woods had the maturity of a 30-year-old.
“He knows how to focus, and how to let a bad shot go. His golf wisdom is very high,” Matthews said in 1992.