I first saw Tiger Woods in person in 1995 when he was walking up the 18th fairway at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. He was a 19-year-old Stanford student, slender, young and handsome, a player with considerable promise that many said would prove him to be the best amateur on the course.
He would not win, that was a given. No amateur ever won the U.S. Open. And that might have contributed to the way he walked, which was easy and loose and confident, the club over his shoulder, looking ahead to size up his next shot.
It was also a given that, as an African-American, he would probably never be welcome to join Shinnecock Hills if he had so desired. The Open had been played at Shinnecock in 1986, and after it was over the membership was told that even though the course was one of the most historic in America, the membership would have to take in at least one African-American as a member if they wanted the U.S. Open back again. They did. And here it was in 1995.
As I reported in Dan’s Papers at that time, Tiger Woods shot a 74, a “respectable” score considering everything. It had been the first day of the four-day Open. But the next day, on the fifth hole, Tiger shot the ball into the fescue and, using his wedge to loft it back out to the fairway, had wrenched his wrist forcing his club through that thick vegetation. He had to withdraw and never did complete either that round or the rest of the competition.
I didn’t see Tiger Woods in person when he played the U.S. Open at Shinnecock again this past June. But I watched him on television. He was 42 years old now. He’d had an unbelievable career from ages 20 to 30, went through a dramatic divorce, injured his back, suffered through four surgeries on it, and with all that couldn’t play well competitively anymore. But still, he was trying.
Here he was now, back out on our course, hoping for a comeback, his 140-foot yacht, paid for from the tens of millions of dollars he had won in the early years, parked in a slip in Montauk.
The hoping for a comeback had captured the interest of fans. He’d been at it for two years since his last surgery. But all he could muster were middle-of-the-pack finishes, with an occasional shot that would remind you of what he could do in his earlier days.
One hundred fifty-six top golfers were invited to enter the U.S. Open this year. At the end of the second round, halfway through, everyone not in the top 60 is cut and sent home. Woods, here at Shinnecock Hills last month, was one of those cut. He stayed through the weekend, enjoying the Hamptons, then sailed off.
Since the conclusion of the Open, Woods has entered four further four-day competitions. He finished fairly well in the first two, and after those he was ranked about 50th in the list of top golfers. His earnings for the year were around $1,500,000, which seems like a lot but, in fact, is a pittance when a golfer who wins a “major” such as the U.S. Open can walk off with $4 million.
In the third outing, Woods showed more than flashes of brilliance. He was 6th out of the 71 competitors after the second round and, as the word went out, millions of fans now turned on their televisions to watch the final two days of the match. They were disappointed. Woods made some bad shots and fell out of contention. As I recall, he finished 31st.
What was drawing everybody to Woods? Woods, for those 10 early years, consistently played golf better than anyone had ever played it before. The game is to hit a ball into a cup using golf clubs. During those years, a half-dozen players would vie with one another up at the top, showing the concentration and prowess to play well. But Woods was in a class by himself. All the others might, with steely nerves, hit a chip shot from 150 yards out to within five feet of the cup on occasion.
Woods would be among those doing that during those first three days. On the fourth day, he’d put on his red shirt—you couldn’t miss him—and hit a chip shot INTO the cup, pulling away from everybody else to win, and he’d do it over and over again. In those 10 years, he racked up the same number of wins as legendary golfers before him had done in 25-year careers.
And then Woods injured his spine. He was either out recovering from surgery or playing without the genius that had been inside him early on. He hadn’t won a major title in 10 years. And at 42 it was surely nearly over.
The fourth and most recent event he entered was the PGA Championship in St. Louis. He shot a 70 on the first day and was far behind. But on the second day he shot a 66 and was up with the leaders. He fell off the pace a bit on the third day, but by the end of that day had brought himself back to 4 shots off the lead. From there he put on his red shirt.
More than 20 million people watched Woods that fourth day. Could he make a run for it? He could! By the 14th hole, he was one shot off the lead. He was going to do it. But then he faltered. He hit his drive on the 14th hole off the fairway, made a poor recovery and fell two strokes back. On the 17th, he once again hit his drive into the rough and had to chip out. At this point, still 210 yards from the green something extraordinary happened. He hit an iron high in the air and it came down to end up just 18 inches from the cup.
He looked at it. The crowd was cheering madly and tears welled up in his eyes. He tried to hide it, but there was no mistaking it. There it was, through the four surgeries, the personal problems, the inconsistencies shown in recent tries, the fact of being 42 years old—the magic was back.
The moment ended, and on he came to the green and the tap in. In the end, he had passed five of the six golfers ahead of him when the day began. He had shot the lowest score of the day. And second place, which is how it ended, would bring him $1.3 million. He just could not finally catch young Brooks Koepka, who would win and earn $3.2 million.
Is he back for good? For perhaps a good five years more? Everyone, including all the other golfers, hope he is. He is so good for the game. He is self-effacing, gracious, humble in all the failed tries at a comeback. He didn’t have it. But he was giving it his best. And he will get there.
On the green of the 18th hole that last day, he was tied for second with Adam Scott of New Zealand. Scott had finished. And Woods, knowing he would not win first place, was left with a long and difficult final 22-foot putt to break the tie and claim second alone, worth about half a million dollars more than the tie. It’s a hard shot, less than a 5% chance to make by even the best golfers. But Woods steadied himself, sized it up, and just as easy as you please made it. He tipped his cap.
Woods is back. His magic is back.
And Shinnecock Hill has been selected again as the site of the U.S. Open in 2026.