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The year Tiger Woods played the John Deere Classic

The Man
The Man

This is the last in a series of essays from the past that I'm posting this week while I grab a little R and R before the Iowa football media day Friday.

In 1996, Tiger Woods came to the John Deere Classic as a professional of only two previous tourneys. He left 0-for-3 after blowing the third-round lead.

The champion was Ed Fiori. In the 13 years that followed, however, Tiger did a bit more winning than Ed.

Here's my piece from his first round that that year's Deere:

COAL VALLEY, Ill. - On a breezy, cool and gray Thursday, small gatherings were the rule near tees and greens during the first round of the PGA Tour's Quad City Classic.

One place on the Oakwood Country Club golf course was full of folks, however. That place was wherever Tiger Woods happened to be at the moment.

Golf's newest and perhaps biggest drawing card certainly helped sell tickets to the QCC, and the tournament could use the bump. That's partially because the star-studded Presidents Cup is being held this weekend, and partially because the QCC simply isn't one of the Tour's top tourneys. Only 13 of the Tour's top 50 money-winners of 1996 are here.

But Woods, in his third professional event, is present. That makes the tourney news worthy and destined for big crowds this weekend, particularly if Woods is in contention.

Thursday, Woods was followed by the kind of numbers who chase the leader down the 18th fairway on Sunday. He was a pied piper who routinely hit 310- to 330-foot tee shots.

Alas, the 3-time U.S. Amateur champion's approach shots and putting weren't up to his standards. He finished with a 1-under-par 69, four strokes behind co-leaders Joey Gullion, Larry Nelson and Charlie Rymer.

"I didn't play well today," Woods said. "My timing was off. I was off today.

"When you're not playing well it's nice to be able to shoot an under-par round. When you're off, the key is to not blow yourself out of the tournament. I'm only four shots out with three rounds to go. If I get turned around, who knows?"

Woods did make one semi-extraordinary shot. From the second cut of fringe off the 13th green, he chipped in with a 3-wood.

"The first time I tried that in competition was on Saturday at the U.S. Open," he said. "I holed out at the 18th hole. So it's not a bad play."

Not if you're really good, anyhow.

An older woman in the gallery remarked "God, you'd think it was Arnold Palmer or something," as she gazed upon the flock of fans following Woods.

His talent is one of many reasons for the public's fascination with him. Woods was the most dominant amateur golfer since Bobby Jones over 60 years ago. He was 11th in just his second pro start, last weekend's Canadian Open.

Also, Tiger roars at the tee box. He has a John Daly-type power that appears almost effortless. It is spellbinding to many golf-lovers. Many fans repeatedly darted to the next tee before Woods was finished putting.

Most importantly, perhaps, Woods looks different than everyone else on the Tour. His skin is black, which makes him stand out in pro golf like John Tesh would on "Yo, MTV Raps." His father is half African-American, one-fourth Chinese and one-fourth American Indian. His mother is half Thai, a quarter Chinese and a quarter white.

Plus, at 20, Woods is the youngest player on the Tour. This guy is fresher than fresh.

That's a rather potent box office combination. It's appropriate that he is a Tiger among a pack of Jeffs, Jims and Jays.

The people saw a rather uneventful 3-birdie, 2-bogey round from their hero. His talent may have to make up for his charisma for now, because on Thursday Woods seemed extra-meticulous and mostly non- demonstrative. The most excited he got was when he sent his second shot into a ravine away from the green of the par-5 No. 6. "Oh no!" he hollered. "God ... no!"

For a fleeting moment, it seemed likely that a different word was going to follow "God," but Woods masterfully held his tongue.

He had better be able to contain his emotions, because Woods may never know what it's like to play a round on the Tour without being in the spotlight. As he strode to the 8th green, PGA rabbits Pete Jordan and Jeff Gallagher stood at the 9th tee shaking their heads and smiling. They couldn't get over the number of fans Woods was dragging along on a Thursday in the middle of nowhere.

Mainly because he is just 204th on the PGA money list because of his late start, Woods was given the next-to-last starting time (1:54 p.m.) of the day. That meant spiked greens and unknown playing partners. Thursday's (and today's) were Sean Murphy and John "Jumbo" Elliott. The latter has won $24,806 in 19 events this year. That's less than Woods made last week in Canada, and it's about one day's interest on the money Tiger makes in endorsements from Nike and Titleist.

"I played with him in Milwaukee in front of a lot more people," Elliott said after shooting 73. "He's a good player to play golf with. I played with him in L.A. a couple years ago, and he's improved immensely since then."

Elliott's girlfriend, Jana Wiltsey, said "Jumbo" may like playing with Woods, but she doesn't care for it all that much.

"It's hard for me to get near the ropes," Wiltsey said.She wasn't the only one with that problem Thursday.

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