If you tuned in that day, you did not do so to watch the Florida kid. The Florida kid was supposed to be a bit player in this drama. Indeed, you had never even heard of him. He was just the kid who happened to land the honor of getting thrashed by the California kid. Because he could have been anybody, he was, essentially, nobody.
You tuned in to watch the California kid. You had heard about that kid. Although he was still a kid, you first heard about him a dozen or more years before that day. He was a child prodigy, a phenom. In fact, that is precisely why you tuned in that day. You needed to find out for yourself if all of the fuss about the California kid was justified.
Even though he was a mere twenty years old, the California kid had already developed a heck of a resume. In his previous seventeen "winner take all and loser goes home" championship battles over the past three years, he had won all seventeen. Even Bill Russell, the greatest winner of do or die games in sports history, did not have a record like that.
This contest had been arranged as number eighteen in that string. Some speculated that it would be the California kid's last championship match in the sport he had dominated. Rumors of his pending retirement spread like wildfire, despite his refusal to confirm or deny them.
This was to be a coronation. Those responsible for arranging the match expected the California kid to use it to confirm that he was the greatest athlete in the history of his sport. The Florida kid's job was simple. He was supposed to do his best, then accept the inevitable beating that he was certain to receive.
Somebody forgot to give the script to the Florida kid. The upstart refused to play his role. He took the best shots the legendary California kid could deliver, deflected them, and delivered a few of his own. Who was this kid? What business did he have messing up the carefully arranged script?
It was a brutal toe to toe battle with several powerful haymakers from each contestant, but it was not a boxing match. The sport that the California kid had dominated was amateur golf. The California kid was Stanford's Tiger Woods, who had won the previous two U.S. Amateur titles. His five wins in preliminary matches put him in a position to do something that nobody—not the legendary Bobby Jones, not the great Jack Nicklaus, not anybody—had ever done. He was trying to win three straight U.S. Amateur titles.
If you tuned in to watch the telecast of the match on NBC, you were not alone. It was probably the most watched match in the history of amateur golf. Except for a few friends and relatives of the Florida kid, everybody tuned in to watch Tiger Woods.
The Florida kid, the one you had never heard of, the one you might have even forgotten by now, was Steve Scott. Like Woods, he was a member of his college golf team. But Woods was a first team All American at Stanford. Scott was not even the best player on his University of Florida team. That honor belonged to Robert Floyd, who was a second team All American. Scott was not even the second best player on his college golf team, because third team All American Josh McCumber had that distinction. So the U.S. Amateur final that day featured the third best player for the Florida Gators against the best player at Stanford (and, for the matter, the entirety of college golf, because Woods had won the individual NCAA championship that spring).
It was scheduled for 36 holes, two trips around the Witch Hollow course at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in Oregon. Nobody thought it would last that long. In match play, the object is to card a better score on each hole than your opponent. As soon as one player's lead was larger than the number of remaining holes, the match was over. Most expected Tiger to finish off Scott at about the 27-hole mark, winning 10 and 9 (meaning ten holes in the lead, with only nine left) or so.
But the third best Florida Gator did not wilt before the defending champ. Instead, he won the third hole with a par, then birdied the fourth, fifth, tenth, eleventh, and fourteenth. When the players stood on the eighteenth tee, Scott had a four-hole lead on Woods.
That was improbable enough. His approach to the match was even more stunning. While others seemed to wilt at the altar of the Tiger, despite their best efforts to maintain their composure, Steve seemed oblivious to the pressure of facing the man some believed might some day be the best golfer in history.
Then again, Steve had a secret weapon. Actually, not so secret. His caddy. All around the course, he joked and giggled with the caddy who was lugging his bag around and giving him advice. While Tiger stared intently, by his own admission as "hot" as he had ever been on a golf course, Steve and his caddy were having a blast. Indeed, it looked like the two of them were in love. They were. Steve's caddy was high school sweetheart, Kristi Hommel, herself a college golfer at Florida Southern. The two of them looked—well, cute--as they flittered around the course between shots.
During those shots, Steve was all business. He finished the morning half of the match with a round that would have been four under par in stroke play.
The eighteenth hole was crucial. Tiger could ill afford to go further than four down at the halfway mark. If he could win the eighteenth, he would have Scott within his sights for the afternoon trip. But Scott had other ideas. He cranked a monstrous tee shot, blasted a three wood to just in front of the par 5's green, chipped within four feet, and birdied to go five up at the turn.
During the break, a murmur rippled through the crowd. Could Tiger actually lose this thing? They had come to see him make history, but perhaps this kid from Florida was going to make history of his own, with arguably the biggest upset in the history of the U.S. Amateur. What was his name again?
Though he undoubtedly tried desperately to suppress the thought, surely Steve must have wondered if it might happen as he ate his lunch during the break between rounds. He had just blasted Tiger Woods, almost into oblivion. Maybe, just maybe, he was going to win.
Harboring the same thoughts, Tiger took to the range to try to regain his swing. During the morning round, he struggled with his timing and sprayed shots both left and right. He needed to find his swing to have any chance to make a match of it. With the help of his coach, Butch Harmon, he found it on the practice tee. With that swing back in his golf bag, Tiger knew he had a shot, despite the deficit. Just two years ago, he had overcome a four-hole deficit midway through the day to beat Trip Kuehne for his first U.S. Amateur crown.
In the second round, it was Tiger who roared out of the gate. This was not the Tiger Woods of PGA tour that we have come to expect in the last decade, the Tiger who takes a third round lead and builds on it. This was Tiger the amateur, staging incredible comebacks that started innocently enough, but ended up in a beast that devoured his opponent.
Tiger birdied the third. Steve's lead was down to four holes. Tiger birdied the fourth. Steve was only three holes up. On the fifth, Steve finally cracked. His bogey reduced his lead to two holes. At the ninth, Tiger hit a twelve foot putt that shrunk Scott's lead to a single hole.
Steve told himself to "just keep playing golf," to stick to his game plan "no matter what was going on." But surely this was the end. In just nine holes, Scott had seen his lead shrink from a sizable five holes to one hole. Up one to the greatest college and amateur player of the day, with his confidence at an all time high? Surely Scott had to know that his little dance with destiny was about to crash to a quick finish.
Yet, he still seemed to be happy. His caddy, too, still seemed to be happy, even as she watched their lead collapse. She had a strategy for keeping her golfer calm. "I made sure that in between shots I would talk to him about things other than golf, like movies or songs," Kristi recalled recently. "And then try to pump him up if I felt he needed a little momentum boost."
By this time, they seemed to be the only ones who failed to recognize the inevitable. The crowd sensed that they were witnessing an epic comeback, one that they would tell their grandchildren they saw some day.
That was a strange aspect to the day. America usually loves an underdog. There was no doubt which player was in that role that day. Nonetheless, the crowd was almost unanimously in Tiger's camp. He was, after all, the guy they came to see, and now he was doing exactly what they expected to see him doing. Each drive down the middle of the fairway, each laser accurate iron that challenged the flag, each putt that found the cup resulted in a thunderous roar.
The crowd was not mean to Steve. When he hit a solid shot, the gallery provided polite applause. But there was the sense that it was he and his caddy against the world. And the world was about to take the lead. Thanks for coming, Steve. Jolly good show this morning. Honorable runner up, that chap.
Nobody could have blamed Steve if he had played the part now, even if he refused to do so from the start. But he would not go quietly. After a poor tee shot on the par 3 tenth, he faced one of golf's two most nerve wracking shots (the other one being the three foot putt). He had to try to flop a wedge near the hole to save par, to have any chance of preventing Tiger from pulling even. On a flop shot, even the slightest twitch can send the ball screaming across the green.
Steve steadied his nerves, kept his head down, and flopped the shot toward the hole. A pretty good shot became an amazing shot when the ball disappeared in the hole. Steve leaped into the air, and Kristi beamed. His lead was back up to two holes, with eight to play. Still no comfort zone against Tiger Woods, but the first signs of life since Tiger's afternoon assault began.
From there, they traded haymakers. Tiger eagled the eleventh to cut the lead to one. Again the crowd went wild. But Steve eagled the fourteenth, to force the lead back to two. Tiger had an eight footer on fifteen that would have put him within one with three to go. Improbably, he missed it.
At that point, the "maybe, just maybe" thought made a return visit to Steve Scott's head. "When I was 2-up with three to go, I thought I had a chance," he admitted later. But he was also a realist. "He knows how to deliver the death blow. He is not afraid to attack, and he knows when to do it."
It looked like the sixteenth might be "when," especially when Steve faced a par putt that was longer than Tiger's birdie putt. They were on the same line. When that happens, one of the most mundane, inconsequential things in golf occurs. The player closer to the hole first places a "mark," often a coin, behind his ball, then picks up the ball so the player further away can send his ball toward the hole without maneuvering around the inside ball. If the coin or other mark is directly in the other player's path to the hole, the etiquette of the game calls for the player closer to the hole to move that mark out of the outside's player's path to the hole.
The process is simple. The player puts his putter head next to the mark, with the head perpendicular to the path to the hole. He then picks up the mark, and moves it to the other end of his putter head. This movement of about four inches clears the outside player's path to the hole. After that player puts, the inside player puts his putter head next to the coin and moves it back to its original position, then replaces his ball on the green. It is a routine set of actions that takes place almost without conscience thought. Tiger marked his ball, then measured with his putter head as he moved the mark out of Steve's line.
Steve made his par putt. Still, Tiger had the chance to pull within one, if he could can his birdie putt. And he had the advantage of having just seen the break, from watching Steve make his par.
Then it happened. A moment so short, an action so seemingly insignificant, that you probably would not have even noticed it if you were there.
As Tiger moved to replace his ball, somebody said something to him. That was odd. In golf, unlike almost every other sport, tense moments—moments where momentum might change—are quiet moments.
Who dared send a sound into that sanctuary of silence? Which person among the hundreds in the crowd had the guts to interrupt Tiger Woods—Tiger Woods, for heaven's sake?
Part II coming soon
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