NCAA golf tournament offers time for reflection on Tiger Woods’ early career

Fred Jeter | 6/3/2021, 6 p.m.
Since its inception in 1897, college golf’s most prestigious tournament has been a mostly all-white affair.

Since its inception in 1897, college golf’s most prestigious tournament has been a mostly all-white affair.

The exception came in 1996. And what an exception it was!

With the NCAA championships going on this week in Scottsdale, Ariz., here’s a look back at the 1996 event in Ooltewah, Tenn., and the emergence of a talented African-American golfer named Eldrick Tont Woods.

His Stanford University teammates good naturedly called him “Erkel,” a nickname given him by teammate and close friend Notah Begay. But the public came to know him simply as “Tiger.”

Before Tiger Woods became the most dominant and marketable player on the PGA circuit, he ruled the college game.

In two seasons at Stanford, Woods averaged 71.37 per round as a freshman and 70.67 as a sophomore.

A two-time All-American and National Player of the Year in 1996, Woods won 11 of 26 tournaments he entered for the Stanford Cardinal, including eight of 13 as a sophomore.

Twice he won the Pac-12 title. Woods scored under 70 in 18 of his 61 rounds in 1996, with an other-worldly 61 as his personal best.

The highlight was the 1996 NCAA event in which Woods posted rounds of 69, 67, 69 and 80 to defeat runner-up Rory Sabbatini of Arizona by four strokes despite the final-round glitch.

Stanford finished third as a team in 1996 behind Arizona State University and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

The 1996 starting lineup for the Cardinal was quite diverse by college golfing standards. Begay, who later played on the PGA circuit, is Native American. Will Yanagisawa, who also turned pro, is of Japanese ancestry.

Woods also drew national acclaim as three-time winner of the U.S. Amateur Championship from 1994 through 1996.

Following the 1996 NCAA crown, Woods left Stanford to join the PGA. Within a few months of going pro, he rose to being arguably the greatest player in the history of the game.

Not only was Woods the first African-American to claim the NCAA title, he became the first to win a PGA Major, the Masters in 1997.

Now 45 and recovering from serious leg injuries suffered in a February car accident, Woods has won 15 PGA Major championships, including the Masters five times — mostly recently in 2019.

He has been the PGA Player of the Year on 11 occasions. Woods has come a long way.

While there are always uncertainties due to injuries, a fully healed Woods still may make a run at catching Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 Major titles.

Regardless, when he reaches 50, he qualifies for the PGA extremely popular senior tour.

There is little doubt he may dominate the older tour just as he rocketed to the top of the leaderboard on the main circuit and before that, for Stanford, where he was the “exception” of all time.

The 1991 women’s NCAA golf championships in Columbus, Ohio, had a Central Virginia flavor. Petersburg native and Matoaca High School alumna LaRee Sugg scored a crucial birdie on a playoff hole to help UCLA win the team crown by a stroke over San Jose State University.

The 1991 individual winner was the University of Arizona’s Annika Sörenstam. The NCAA Player of the Year Award is named in Sörenstam’s honor.

Sugg later became the third Black woman to play on the LPGA circuit.