The first tee at Riviera Country Club, on a cliff 75 feet above the fairway, looks more like a jumping-off point for hang gliders than a starting point for golfers. And yet it's a great place from which to launch a drive...or a career.
High school sophomore Tiger Woods did both last Thursday when he teed off in the first round of the Nissan Los Angeles Open. At 16 years and two months, he became the youngest golfer ever to play in a PGA Tour event—a man-cub among men in a sport that favors the long-in-the-tooth over the teething.
Tiger, the 6'1" reigning U.S. Junior Amateur champion, stepped to the tee weighing only 140 pounds, and this was following a meal earlier that week of seven pizza slices and a vanilla ice-cream cone. On a typical Thursday morning he would have been sitting in the third row of Glenn Taylor's advanced geometry class at Western High in Anaheim, laboring over angular and perpendicular bisectors. "It's sort of like what he's doing on the golf course," Taylor said after that day's round, "except that out there Tiger's doing it all in his head without a compass."
Beginnings are instructive. Wednesday, in the pro-am, a nervous Tiger had deployed a driver at the majestic 1st tee and hit a high, sweeping hook into the corporate tents, out of bounds. The following morning, in front of a gallery that included hundreds of enthusiastic supporters, he went with his three-wood and spanked a crowd-pleasing 280-yard draw out over the cliff, the ball stopping in the first cut of left rough on the 501-yard par-5. "I was so tense I had a tough time holding the club," Tiger said later. "It was like rigor mortis had set in."
From there Tiger drilled another three-wood to the middle of the green and got down in two putts for a birdie. On leader boards around the course, the score went up: T. WOODS, -1.
"That was neat," he said afterward.
Following that cue, let's put the events of Tiger's week into two categories:
•Neat—Playing in the pro-am with pro Gary Hallberg and actor Peter Falk (Tiger wisely averted his eyes when TV's Columbo cranked up his slow-ratcheting backswing)...getting an encouraging pat from golf legend Sam Snead...being followed by enthusiastic galleries of 3,000 on Thursday and Friday...seeing a GO GET 'UM TIGER sign held by a spectator...hearing fans shout "You the kid!"...shooting a first-round, one-over-par 72 to get within reach of the 36-hole cut...and walking onto the final green late Friday afternoon to a rousing ovation. ("More than a thrill," Tiger said.)
•Not so neat—The distractions of gallery movement and noise ("I've never had a gallery," Tiger said. "I wasn't used to it")...television cameras in his face between shots...former Masters champ Sandy Lyle, when asked if he knew anything about Tiger Woods, responding, "Is that a golf course?"...the swing arrhythmia that made Tiger wild off the tee ("I wanted to walk out there and hand him a course map," said Jay Brunza, Tiger's personal sports psychologist)...and a 75 on Friday to finish the two rounds at five-over-par 147 and miss the cut by six shots.
"It was a learning experience," Tiger said, relaxed and smiling, when it was over, "and I learned I'm not that good."