Dick Jerardi | That 'kid' grew on us quickly

Posted: April 04, 2007

IT WAS A LATE August Sunday in 1994 when the remote began to pass idly over the channels. There, something looked familiar. It was the TPC at Sawgrass where I had been 8 months before. What's going on there?

It was something called the U.S. Amateur with one golfer I did not know and another whose name I sort of remembered from somewhere.

Trip Kuehne, a player I certainly had never heard of, was far ahead; six shots, I think. The twosome was scheduled to play 36 holes. I think they were more than halfway done when I tuned in. Something told me to keep watching.

The other player, the one I sort of knew, was wearing shorts and some kind of straw hat. It was obvious he was very young. It quickly became obvious he had something you can't teach. He had "it."

Just at the moment I tuned in, he started to come back. Stroke by stroke, hole by hole, he was closing. And I was mesmerized.

I watch some golf. The majors are always fascinating because so much rides on every shot. But, most of the time, I am not paying all that much attention.

That day, I found myself paying attention to every shot. It was great theater. You could just tell the player making the comeback was an athlete as much as he was a golfer. And he just had that special something you can feel when you see it.

The match was even by the time they got to the 17th, the Island Green, the hole that swallows balls and makes grown men cower, the par 3 that has been known to produce scores of 9, 10 and 11.

Tiger Woods did not cower, not then, not now, not ever. He went right for the flag. My memory is that the ball barely stayed out of the water, but that was because the flag was placed not far from the edge. Before Woods lined up the putt, I wanted to find somebody to bet. This birdie putt was going in. I knew it. More importantly, he knew it. The ball went in like it was magnetized.

Tiger, just 18 years old, clinched it on the next hole. He was the youngest U.S. Amateur champion in the history of the event.

I wasn't exactly sure what it was I was watching, but I did have some clue. I did say to myself I wish Tiger were a stock. I would buy. And hold.

I called our golf writer, Mike Kern, telling him what I had just seen, what I felt. This teenager, Tiger Woods, I assured him, was the next great sports star.

It is just a shame he wasn't a stock. He was Microsoft and Google all wrapped into one package of intellect, athleticism and competitiveness. He was Michael Jordan on grass.

It was the first of the three successive amateurs for Woods. Kern and I watched the third one at Giants Stadium following a Penn State game in 1996. Woods had to win it on the 38th hole against Steve Scott. He did, of course.

He turned pro right after that. Won that insane Masters the following April when he did a Bob Beamon. Hasn't stopped winning. May never stop winning.

Still, who was this kid? That was my overwhelming thought that day in 1994. What did he have that nobody else had?

I found out he shot a 48 for nine holes - as a 3-year-old. I learned he had won three consecutive U.S. Junior Amateurs before graduating to the Amateur.

In the third Junior, Tiger trailed Ryan Armour by two shots with two holes to play. Woods won the last three holes for a 1-up victory after 19 holes. This stuff does not just happen.

There is a force of will here. It is so rare when the most talented player also is the smartest player and the player who will work the hardest. I can think of two - Jordan and Woods.

I don't care if Tiger is worth $1 billion. Not interested in his yacht that is the size of a small island. Don't care about the house he is building that will be the approximate size of Luxembourg.

I just want to watch Tiger play golf. If he is not entered in a tournament, I am not interested. If he is entered, I want to see it. If he drops out of contention, I drop out. If he is close, I am in. If he is ahead, I am in. If he is way ahead, I am really in.

I can't really explain why I want to watch a match that has no apparent drama. Somehow, it just seems to matter.

Why I have to watch Tiger is the same reason I wanted to watch UCLA basketball from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. The outcome was clear. I just wanted to see the excellence, the greatness, and the beauty of it all. Wanted to see how it would happen this time. It is exactly that way with Tiger.

How far under par is he going to go in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach? Will he ever find a bunker at the Old Course? Will he really try to hit a ball out of a trap, over a lake from a zillion yards away and have it drop out of the sky a few feet from the hole to win Canadian Open?

How many majors will he win - 20, 25, 30? Will he win the Grand Slam in one calendar year? Will he shoot 59 in the final round of a major? What will Tiger Woods do?

It has been almost 13 years now, but that Sunday afternoon will stick with me forever. I don't ever want to see a tape. I want to remember it how I remember it, even if the details go foggy with time. It was just one of those times when you consider the possibilities and realize that the only limits are the ones we put on ourselves.

Sometimes, you forget there are a few among us who see no limits. Then, you see Tiger Woods and you remember.

I've been privileged to chronicle some memorable events - Summer Olympics, Triple Crown, Final Four, Rose Bowl, NBA Finals. Whenever I cover a game that you hope never ends or a race where a horse does something that seems impossible, I measure that against the great games and great moments that came before them and ask: Does this make the top 10?

There is really nothing like being there. It is not the same on television. You can't feel it. You can't hear it. You often don't remember it.

There are exceptions. That August Sunday in 1994 was an exception. Tiger Woods came right through the TV screen. No need to be there. This was one moment you could feel from home and one I won't ever forget. *

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