Every participant and coach on the 1996 NCAA Championship was handed a poll, and Arron Oberholser paused for a temporary second earlier than choosing the participant of the yr in college golf. During his junior season at San Jose State he’d performed among the finest golf of his life, profitable six occasions, together with a memorable shootout at Pasatiempo. He was unquestionably one of many two finest gamers in the nation, worthy of significant consideration for the Haskins Award, however after enduring one other historic beatdown, he couldn’t summon the audacity to vote for himself.
“It’s over,” Oberholser instructed his teammates, checking the field subsequent to Tiger Woods’ identify.
In the midst of an unforgettable postseason run, Woods had won Pac-10s by 14 pictures. He had run away at regionals, too, beating Oberholser head-to-head. And now right here he was once more, getting ready to the historic Triple, not simply racing forward on the NCAA Championship however throttling the deepest discipline of the yr. Eyeing his eighth win of the season, Woods was 9 pictures clear after 54 holes on the Honors Course, expertly dissecting the toughest venue these mere mortals had ever seen.
Still, again in the workforce van, Oberholser’s teammates goaded him, telling him he was each bit as deserving – by no means thoughts the overwhelming proof suggesting in any other case.
“I’m not the best college player in the United States – I’m the second-best, and that’s fine,” he instructed them. “Unless I shoot 60 tomorrow and he shoots 80, it’s over, man.”
“Well, one of those happened,” Oberholser mentioned with a chuckle, choosing up the story 25 years later.
“The other did not.”
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WHAT UNFOLDED AT THE Honors Course a quarter-century in the past has largely been misplaced to historical past. None of the round recaps have been archived on-line, and an NCAA media liaison got here up empty on scorecards, pairings, statistics – the whole lot sans a few pictures. “If I didn’t have the pictures and final results to prove it actually took place,” the NCAA rep mentioned, “I would wonder if it ever happened …”
Even Woods’ Stanford teammates, now in their mid-40s, have hazy reminiscences of that week outdoors Chattanooga, Tennessee. They knew Woods, then 20, won his one and solely NCAA particular person title. They knew they fell brief as a workforce, after profitable in 1994 (with out Woods) and shedding a playoff the next yr. And they knew that it marked Woods’ 11th college title in 27 begins – an unfathomable 41% profitable proportion that portended his legendary professional profession. Indeed, 10 months after his NCAA romp, Woods was the runaway winner on the Masters.
“He did things you’d consider impossible unless you’d seen it,” mentioned Joel Kribel, a freshman on that ’96 Stanford squad.
Woods’ sophomore season was interrupted by a few forays elsewhere, however when he did play to his degree, it was oftentimes a matter of not simply whether or not he’d win, however by what number of. At the Pac-10 Championship, he smashed his personal course document at Big Canyon Country Club with a 61 in the morning. A number of hours later, after listening to their course had been desecrated, the members got here out to observe Woods break the unique document once more in the afternoon, this time with a 65. He wound up profitable by 14. “It was literally like a Tour event with all of the roars,” mentioned Conrad Ray, a junior on the ’96 workforce who’s now the Stanford males’s coach.
TigerMania hadn’t but kicked into excessive gear, however there was an unmistakable sense that one thing particular was afoot. For two years Woods was the uncommon larger-than-life collegian; superfans would pull up alongside the Stanford workforce van, laying on the horn, eager to glimpse Tiger or attempt to get his autograph. “So we’d keep the window up, scribble on a hat and throw it back to them at the intersection,” Ray mentioned. “Those poor guys to this day probably have it on their mantle thinking it’s a legit autograph.”
“It was eye-opening from so many different perspectives,” Kribel mentioned. “Being away at college, you’re doing things on your own for the first time, and then you’re thrown into that traveling circus. It was a little bit of a fiasco. There was just a scene wherever we went.”
But for all of the distractions and inconveniences, it still appeared a comfortable association for the remainder of the workforce. Simply comply with the previous caddie mantra – present up, sustain, shut up – and they need to be in competition. “Except it was weirdly stressful for me,” Ray mentioned, “because I knew how talented he was. If I didn’t shoot 80, we’d probably have a good chance to win. The guys like me at the back of the lineup, we knew we had this monster out front.”
Woods shouldered a lot of that burden, too. With a workforce that had graduated studs like Notah Begay III and Casey Martin in spring 1995, Woods understood he doubtless wanted to shoot in the 60s to provide a now-inexperienced squad a life like shot. “He was pretty good about it, but he carried a lot of pressure with him,” Ray mentioned. (*25*)
Fueled by Woods’ epic performances, Stanford entered nationals brimming with confidence as one of many top-ranked groups in the nation. All of the heavy hitters can be there – Oberholser, Texas’ Brad Elder, N.C. State’s Tim Clark – and they equipped for what was at all times the stiffest problem of the season. They still weren’t ready for this brutality. The Honors Course was lengthy (7,039 yards), slender and penal. There have been 10 occasions as many scores in the 80s (82) because the 60s (eight). After watching the early carnage, a native author penned that he’d swim throughout one of many course’s ponds if anybody completed 72 holes underneath par.
“That place ate my lunch,” Oberholser mentioned. “It was the most intimidating course I played in college.”
“It was hard as hell,” Kribel mentioned. “The grass off the fairway, I felt like it was somewhere between knee- and waist-high. You’re lucky if you could find it and luckier if you could get it back in play. With the team counting on you, you were puckering on every shot.”
Still, Woods appeared unfazed, so unfastened in observe that he battled SMU’s Hank Kuehne in a long-drive contest and helped straighten out Ray’s placing stroke. Determined to depart a winner in what can be his final college begin, Woods began solidly, firing considered one of solely two opening rounds in the 60s and sitting one again of Arizona State’s Pat Perez.
“Tiger used to always pure it,” Ray mentioned. “When you strike it as well as he did, not much can go wrong. Back then there was a much bigger dispersion. Guys that couldn’t stripe it were scrambling their butt off to shoot a score; it was damage control rather than who could make the most birdies. But he was a different animal.”
Fans turned out in droves to witness the phenomenon in individual. Jerry Chang, Stanford’s senior chief and considered one of Woods’ closest mates, remembers an early second in the match when he was standing on the tee at 16, an into-the-wind, 210-yard par 3 that required a carry over water. The problem of the outlet at all times precipitated a one- or two-group backup, and Chang remembers ready to tee off, hoping to get his shot off earlier than the horde following Woods descended.
“I didn’t get my wish,” he mentioned. “So I’m teeing off, and there are thousands of people waiting on the tee box. I proceed to hit two balls into the water and make an 8 or 9 on the hole. Over the years, I jokingly blame Tiger for bringing these big crowds to college golf and all the nerves that go with playing in front of crowds. I guess that’s what makes his rounds even more amazing, because he was doing all of this while thousands of people were watching him.”
They witnessed fairly the present: Woods started to tug away, following up a second-round 67 with a 69. Despite what many seen as an over-the-top course setup, he posted 11-under 195 – placing him forward by 9 pictures, with simply three different gamers underneath par after 54 holes.
“It was just disbelief,” Kribel mentioned. “We were just kind of nudging each other: Can you believe what he’s doing for us? When he did that at Pac-10s, it’s like, OK, it’s just a conference tournament. But he did this against the best in college golf. He made them all – us all – look pedestrian. It’s indescribable how much better he was.
“But it also made you feel lesser, like, How come I can’t even come close? There were a lot of good players there, and they weren’t within nine shots going into the last round. It’s tough. It makes you question your play at the next level, like, Is everybody out there gonna be this good? What’s gonna happen to us? But he was a different breed.”
In the bigger sporting panorama, Woods’ heroics barely registered. This was a totally different period in college golf: Golf Channel cameras have been there, however they didn’t cowl the motion dwell. There have been solely a handful of writers on-site, just like the late, nice Golfweek author Ron Balicki, and a few native scribes. They didn’t have up-to-the-minute scoring or on-course leaderboards or social media. “All you did was go back to your room and go do it again,” Ray mentioned. “There wasn’t much hype. Back then, Tiger was doing it quietly [on a national scale]. I’d love to see a modern-day Tiger and the success he had. It’d be off the charts. Astronomical.”
If the enormity of the achievement weighed on Woods, he didn’t betray any nerves. Mentally exhausted from the occasion, he and Chang not often talked about golf and usually returned to their lodge room to observe TV or work on homework. “I do remember shaking my head thinking Tiger beat me by 18 shots in the second round,” Chang mentioned. “Thankfully he didn’t remind me of that fact.” One night time, they went to Applebee’s for a de facto workforce banquet, the place Earl chatted up the opposite proud golf dads. On the eve of the final round, they huddled one final time as a workforce and shared what all of them meant to one another. “Tiger really enjoyed that team aspect,” Kribel mentioned.
And but, there was no coronation. After all, they have been lower than two months faraway from the 1996 Masters, when Greg Norman infamously surrendered a six-shot lead on the final day. “He didn’t take any lead for granted,” Chang mentioned. But greater than that, Woods wasn’t caught up chasing particular person glory – with Stanford trailing by 20 pictures, he principally wished to be a part of a historic comeback.
That dream light shortly, with the final round that includes essentially the most troublesome situations of the week. Scores soared, and not even Woods was immune. So spectacular for thus lengthy, he carded the best rating of his college profession. He triple-bogeyed the ninth gap after hitting his pitch shot too onerous and operating it into the water, then adopted with 4 consecutive bogeys – for a temporary time giving his closest pursuers, like Arizona’s Rory Sabbatini, a glimmer of hope that he may come all the way in which again to the sphere.
“It wasn’t until the 14th or 15th hole that I heard that Tiger was having a challenging day,” Chang mentioned. “I guess it was easy for us to take for granted how well he played all year to assume he was going to automatically shoot in the 60s again. But the Honors Course was a beast.”
Ultimately, Woods steadied himself to put up an 80, a stunning rating for such a adorned frontrunner however still adequate for a four-shot victory. At 3-under 275, he was the one participant to complete the match underneath par. All these years later, nobody is aware of whether or not the native author saved his phrase and swam throughout the pond.
“I’m exhausted right now,” Woods instructed reporters afterward. “People will never know how much it took out of me. I had to dig really deep, give all I had.”
As stunning as Woods’ 80 was, it still wasn’t the worst rating of the day for the Cardinal – in addition they counted David Garcia’s 82. Unable to depend on a sub-par rating from its famous person, Stanford dropped again to fourth, 19 pictures behind Arizona State’s 34-over par profitable complete.
“We felt like we were letting him down to a certain extent,” Kribel mentioned.
The day wasn’t a full loss, after all. With Woods’ victory, Stanford might boast an NCAA particular person champion for the primary time since Sandy Tatum in 1942. Chang additionally claimed bragging rights, at the very least for a day. Despite prior rounds of 85-80, he closed out his college profession with a personal-best 70, tying the low round of the day and beating Woods by 10.
“He likes to rub Tiger’s face in it,” Ray mentioned.
“Well, as much as you can for somebody who kicked the s–t out of us as much as he did,” Kribel mentioned.
Few knew on the time, however the victory additionally marked the tip of Woods’ brief however storied college profession. In the aftermath, there was no grand sendoff. They didn’t have the NCAA trophy presentation dwell on TV. They didn’t fly house on personal jets. They didn’t spend the night time scrolling social media to see the frenzied response. Former Arizona State coach Randy Lein recalled speaking to Woods on the airport and famous one overriding emotion: Relief.
He was a rocket cleared for blastoff, and the following few months have been dizzying. Despite the objections (delusions?) of Oberholser’s San Jose State teammates, Woods was named the landslide winner of the Haskins Award. He would seize one other memorable U.S. Amateur title a few months later. He’d flip professional after that, and the game would by no means be the identical.
Those who obtained whipped by Woods 25 years in the past weren’t shocked by what would quickly turn out to be of his profession – all of the hoopla, the mystique, the demoralizing dominance. The 1996 NCAAs underscored what they already knew, what they’d come to count on.
“We didn’t think anybody outside the top couple players in the world could do what he was doing at that time,” Kribel mentioned. “You couldn’t hide from the fact that this dude was absolutely unbelievable.”