The year was 1992, and Tiger Woods was struggling to find a fairway during the Western Junior Championship at Edgewood Valley Country Club in La Grange.
Somehow, after hitting just one fairway and one green in his last nine holes of stroke play, the 16-year-old golf prodigy advanced to the match-play portion of the event at Wheaton’s Chicago Golf Club. He would eventually fall 3 and 1 in the quarterfinals.
“I thought, ‘This guy’s pretty good,’ ” said Tim Cronin, who covered the event as a golf writer for the Southtown Star and has written six golf books. “If he can ever straighten his driving out, he might have a chance.”
All the 14-time major champion has done since then is win 79 times on the PGA Tour, including seven times near the shores of Lake Michigan. He’ll be looking for victory No. 8 when the FedEx Cup’s BMW Championship comes to Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest.
Before he gets the chance, here’s a look at some of Woods’ greatest Chicagoland triumphs from a spectator’s perspective. First up? The 1997 Western Open, since renamed the BMW Championship.
Woods entered July with four wins in 1997, the biggest of which was an unprecedented 12-stroke victory at the Masters Tournament that gave him his first major title. Tiger Mania was just beginning.
Cronin: That was probably the most fascinating (Western Open). It was his first full year on the PGA Tour.
Jeff Rimsnider (Cog Hill, head golf professional): These (fans) weren’t even golfers. You could just tell that they weren’t even golfers, but they were there to see Tiger Woods. … You wouldn’t believe how many came to Cog Hill because they could buy an $18 ticket and come in here and see him. Just to have him walk by them.
Bob Cummings (golf fan in attendance): I’ll never forget attending the tournament one summer with my sister. We were near the 17th green and while Tiger was approaching the green after hitting a wedge shot a few feet from the hole, I shouted: “Hey, Tiger! My sister is in love with you!” The people around me laughed, but Tiger was laughing even harder.
Rimsnider: We can see No. 9 green from the (pro) shop, and it’s like six deep with people. Then, all of a sudden, you know Tiger is coming. … All of the merchandising was based on Tiger and where he was at. We would move (employees) based on where Tiger was, because that’s where the crowd was.
After rounds of 67, 72 and 68, Woods was tied for the lead with Justin Leonard and Loren Roberts entering the final day. Leonard and Roberts faltered, leaving Woods to coast down No. 18 with the Sunday lead. After Woods hit his approach shot on the final hole, a few fans hopped over the ropes lining the fairway. Soon the entire gallery was trailing Woods, who won by three shots.
Cronin: Now, this never happens in golf anymore. It used to happen in the British Open. … A couple of guys jumped over and other people followed and all of a sudden, he’s got three or four hundred people following him down the fairway.
Rimsnider: The marshals had no chance of stopping this. It was, like, spontaneous. It was still a safe situation. It didn’t get out of hand.
Cronin: Woods was like the Pied Piper at that point.
Woods (according to the Sun-Times, in 1997): “I didn’t see (the fans). … I didn’t want to look back. It does no good. You have to finish out the hole. The hole’s not behind me.”
Barry Cronin (golf writer for the Sun-Times in 1997, no relation to Tim Cronin): I was standing behind the green going, ‘What just happened?’ … He was the most exciting player you’d seen in your life, since Arnold Palmer. No doubt about it.
Tim Cronin: Golf fans tend to gravitate toward the big stars. They don’t root for the underdogs, they root for the overdogs. They rooted for Palmer and (Jack) Nicklaus and now they rooted for Woods on this occasion. And that kind of cemented the love he would have with Chicago.
1999 PGA Championship
Woods arrived at Medinah Country Club in Medinah in August, two years — and 10 major tournaments — removed from his Masters breakthrough. He had won four tournaments in 1999, including his second Western Open at Cog Hill.
Don Larson (general chairman of the 1999 PGA Championship and executive committee member for the 2006 PGA Championship): (Woods) was very concerned about his dad’s health at the time. His dad had just completed one of his surgeries, and I can remember talking about that and his dad. His dad was at the tournament, by the way, and he wanted to be sure that he performed well for his dad.
Rimsnider: Medinah and Dubs (the nickname for Dubsdread, Cog Hill’s Course No. 4), with the tree lines, it’s so appealing to (Woods’) eye. He just gets real comfortable. And Medinah is a bit like Dubsdread with the oak trees and the lined fairways and a little bit of the green elevation.
Tim Cronin: He did at Medinah much like he did at Cog Hill. He pretty much owned the gallery, and he eventually owned the course as well.
Larson: Every time I’ve been around Tiger, what strikes me most is his intensity and his level of concentration. He’s so focused, that I don’t think he realizes that there are other people in the room, almost, when he’s getting ready to play.
A 19-year-old named Sergio Garcia comes out of nowhere with a first-round 66 to set the pace, but Woods starts 70-67-68 and goes 4-under through his first 11 holes on Sunday to open up a four-shot lead. Garcia, hanging around, rolls in a birdie on No. 13, a difficult par 3, to cut the lead to three.
Tim Cronin: Garcia makes a birdie and makes a fist pump, and Tiger thinks it’s directed toward him.
Garcia (according to the Sun-Times in 1999): I wanted him to know that I was still there.
Woods hit his tee shot on No. 13 long and makes double bogey. His lead is just one.
Woods (according to the Sun-Times in 1999): I thought to myself that even though I had given back those shots, I still had the lead … and he was still the one chasing me.
Larson: They were the young kids at the time. Everyone thought that Sergio and Tiger would be forever battling for greatness in the future.
Garcia pulled off a near-impossible shot on the 16th hole after his drive rolled up against the trunk of a tree. The Spaniard slashed at the ball with a 6-iron, closing his eyes and then chasing it down the fairway before leaping to watch it find the green.
Tim Cronin: CBS only replayed that about 5,000 times.
Larson: That shot Sergio made is still being talked about and still shown on golf highlights.
Woods (according to the Sun-Times, in 1999): (Some fans) were saying things they shouldn’t have. … I could tell the crowd started changing when a guy yelled, “A thousand dollars (says) you slice it into the water at 17.”
That was a losing bet — Woods rolled in an 8-foot par putt, then closed out Garcia with a par on No. 18.
Larson: Tiger’s shot on the 17th hole, if you go back and look at pictures of that, he needed to par that one. That kind of was a reflection of his intensity, when you look at the pictures of that. The atmosphere was really electric.
Woods (according to the Sun-Times, in 1999): To finally win (major) No. 2, is a relief.
Tim Cronin: Tiger Mania came back, and really at that point it was a question of, “How many can he win?” The race with Nicklaus was on at that point. There was a great feeling like that. Now he’d won three times in Chicago, and it’s like, “Well, this kid really does like to come back here.”
2006 PGA Championship
Woods was back at Medinah, but with a different narrative. He had won three of the previous seven majors — including the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool in England two months earlier — and nine major titles overall since the 1999 PGA.
Tim Cronin: In ’06, he came in as the odds-on favorite and he was winning maybe half his majors, something around there. And you thought, “OK, he’s got a great chance to do it again.” The feeling was even more overwhelming than it was in 1999, when the question was, OK, he’d gone 10 majors without a win, you know. Would he win another anytime soon?
Larson: The Tiger Era was in its infancy in 1999, and then he comes back in 2006. … He just seemed a lot more mature and a lot more focused on the game.
Woods was the only player in the field to shoot in the 60s all four days. He opened with rounds of 69, 68 and 65 to enter Sunday tied for the lead with Luke Donald, then beat Donald 68-74. Shaun Micheel finished five shots back in second place.
Tim Cronin: There wasn’t very much drama to it, that’s for sure.
Donald (according to the Sun-Times, in 2006): He just kind of wills (the ball) in the hole.
Tim Cronin: The notion was, well, Donald hasn’t broken through in a major yet. Would this be his time? And he wore a red shirt on Sunday, just like Tiger did, and that didn’t work out.
Larson: I remember about Medinah, (Woods) said, “I love this place,” when he won for the second time. I think if you check the record books, he does very well in Chicago.