Golf, as we know it, is over. It came to an end on a chamber-of-commerce Sunday evening in Las Vegas when Tiger Woods went for the upgrade: He's not just a promising young Tour pro anymore, he's an era.
Three straight U.S. Amateur titles and $60 million in endorsements before he laced up his first pair of you-know-whats provided a strong clue, but when Woods shot 64 in the final round of the Las Vegas Invitational and then beat Davis Love III—a big dog on the PGA Tour—on the first hole of a playoff at the TPC at Summerlin, the start of the new age became official. The game's most heralded amateur since Bobby Jones has his maiden pro victory, and nothing is likely to be the same. Woods, at 20, is already the biggest name in the sport.
Why? Because he is as good as he looks. Start with the length. You thought John Daly was long? Woods is longer, and much straighter off the tee. In the light desert air of Las Vegas, the ball travels an extra 10%, but Woods's 323-yard driving average for the week was 13 yards better than that of John Adams, who was second, and 38 yards better than the field's. On Sunday, Woods, going for the green at the short par-4 15th, flew his tee shot into the back bunker, a carry of about 315 yards—with a three-wood.
Jack Nicklaus has long contended that someone would come along who could hit 30 yards past everyone else, much as he did decades ago, have a great short game and dominate the sport. That someone could be Woods. He's a good putter who gets better in the clutch, in the mold of Nicklaus and Lee Trevino. Whenever Nicklaus had to make a 10- or 20-footer, he did. Woods does, too. He did it on Sunday when he ran in a 30-footer for birdie at the 11th, the key hole of his round. Woods had driven into a fairway bunker and appeared to be in trouble, yet he was able to muscle a sand wedge onto the front of the green, and his long putt never wavered. Watching, you somehow knew the ball was going to drop.
Woods has all the extras, starting with the instantly recognizable nickname. He smiles on the course and looks as if he's having fun. He emotes, whether it's punching the air with an uppercut, last seen at the Amateur, or straight-arming a putt into the hole.
In Las Vegas everything added up to a victory that was part incredible, part inevitable. "We were afraid he was going to win before he got here," said Jim Cook, the tournament director, whose event is now linked forever with the kid.
Woods's father, Earl, called the shot. After Tiger had made a quadruple-bogey 8 and four-putted while blowing his lead in the final round of last month's Quad City Classic, his third event as a pro, Earl told friends that the big breakthrough would come in Las Vegas. Nonetheless Earl decided to stay home in Cypress, Calif., and watch on TV.
Woods played like a man among boys during his two years at Stanford and throughout his unparalleled reign as an amateur. So far the Tour hasn't been any different. Exhausted from the 36-hole days at the U.S. Amateur, Woods tied for 60th in his debut in the Greater Milwaukee Open and has improved every week—11th, fifth, third and first—for the fastest start since Michael Johnson.
"Am I surprised?" said Butch Harmon, Woods's instructor. "I'm surprised it took this long. I'm one of the few people who really knew how good he is. For him, to be able to just play golf was the key. He didn't have to go to school or do anything else." Harmon received the first Tiger hug on Summerlin's 18th green after Love missed a six-footer to end the playoff.
Woods wasn't surprised by the win, either. "It should've come at Quad City," he said. "I learned a lot from that." There was no snowman or four-jack this time. Yet after a disappointing 70 in the first round, Woods seemed to have as much chance of winning as Bob Dole. The Tour record for a 72-hole tournament is 27 under par, set by Mike Souchak in 1955. Woods played the last 72 holes of this 90-hole event in 26 under. A second-round 63 got him back in the picture. He followed with 68 and 67 before Sunday's 64.