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At 16, Woods Steals This Show : Golf: Teen-ager becomes youngest to play in PGA Tour event, carding a one-over-par 72 in the opening round.

February 28, 1992|MARYANN HUDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Surrounded by teammates playing hooky from school, his family, friends and, oh, about 3,000 others, Tiger Woods made his debut in professional tournament golf Thursday when he played as an amateur at the Nissan Los Angeles Open at Riviera Country Club. Woods, 16, is the youngest golfer to play in a PGA Tour event.

Woods, from Western High in Anaheim, survived a paparazzi-like crush of reporters chasing him from the 18th hole after he finished his round of one-over-par 72 in front of a gallery estimated to be larger than John Daly's, the other crowd favorite.

"You the kid," came the chant from the crowd, a spin-off from the usual gallery saying of "You the man."

Woods required extra marshals to hold the "Quiet Please " signs. "It's like a Sunday crowd," said longtime tournament official Al Roth, who works on the third green. And that was at 9:30 a.m.

But none of this seemed to affect Woods, whose golf bag looked like a backpack compared to the bags used by the others in his threesome, Dicky Thompson and Robert Friend. Woods acknowledged early jitters but explained his first day as "just another tournament."

Just another tournament?

"The gallery made it different," he conceded. "And the media."

Woods' mother, Kultida, explains the difference this way: "Tiger grew up in Cypress all his life. He's just a local boy. That's why a lot of these people are here."

Some of those following Woods said they had seen him play in local tournaments or had read about him since he was, well, just a kid. Some merely wanted to see Woods' first round with the professionals, believing that one day Woods would be one. Others simply marveled at Woods' fluid swing.

Woods said he enjoyed his day. For now, though, talk of being a professional is rebuffed by the high school sophomore. All he wants to do here is shoot at least a 69 today, make the cut and get back to school in time for a match Monday against Gahr High.

"He's just a kid," said his mother, "just 16. It's hard for people to understand that, because he has the ability. But playing here is just a test for Tiger, to see where he is at and how far he needs to go. Let him be a kid. He loves to play."

Woods birdied the first hole, bogeyed the sixth and ninth holes and made par the rest of the way. Along the way he showed his ability to play out of trouble, which he frequently was in. Not only did he learn what it is like to play before a crowd, he learned what it's like to hit into and over one. Woods' natural draw off the tee was sometimes more of a hook. But it never seemed to rattle him. Once, stuck on the other side of a cart path, he offered his club to onlookers. "Anybody want to try it?" he asked.

On the second hole, a 460-yard par four, Woods drove way left, behind a row of oleanders bordering the driving-range fence. He tried to punch out, but his shot ricocheted off a couple of branches and stopped before the cart path. His practice backswing hit trees, but he hit a near-perfect draw of about 170 yards, hitting the green about four feet from the pin before rolling to a stop about eight feet away. He made the putt to save par.

Woods' short game helped him much of the day. It's a part of his game at which he has had a lot of practice. Playing with his father and his father's friends at the Navy Golf Club near his home, Woods was small in stature and had to scramble to keep up. About two years ago he started to grow rapidly, adding seven inches to reach his present size, 6 feet 1 and about 140 pounds. Now, he outdrives all his father's buddies and remains adept around the greens.

"You haven't seen Tiger yet," Woods' father, Earl, said after the round.

"When Tiger was almost 2, he used to play with a seven-iron that had the back of the clubface machined off to make it lighter," Earl Woods said. "He learned to use it as a sand wedge, to chip and run. That's how he learned. Seve Ballesteros had his two-iron, and Tiger had his seven-iron."

Woods hurt his back on the 11th hole, pulling a muscle while trying to hit out of deep rough in a barranca. After the round, he went to the tour's fitness trailer for treatment.

Tiger's given name is Eldrick, but his father nicknamed him Tiger after an Army buddy Earl Woods knew in Vietnam but has lost contact with. Earl is hoping that the friend will see his son's name in the news and contact him.

"Tiger (my son) is really Tiger II," Woods said.

Thursday at Riviera, Tiger was No. 1.

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