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Tiger Woods marks ten years as a pro

Tiger Woods had everyone's attention even before he joined them on the PGA Tour.

Tour commissioner Tim Finchem remembers the buzz inside the clubhouse at Firestone in 1996 during the old World Series of Golf, only it wasn't about Phil Mickelson headed for his fourth victory of the year.

"Players were gathered around watching the U.S. Amateur," Finchem said. "We had this championship going on, but everybody wanted to watch every move he made because they knew he was going to be out there next year."

Woods was at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon that week, trying to make history as the first player to capture three straight U.S. Amateur titles. He had played 14 times on the PGA Tour without coming seriously close to cracking the top 10, although he had his moments.

No one questioned his raw talent, only where it would lead.

"They knew he was going to be good," Finchem said. "The only question was how good?"

The latest reminder came Sunday, the 10-year anniversary of the day Woods turned pro. Players again were inside the Firestone clubhouse watching TV, this time as Woods made a birdie putt to beat Stewart Cink in a playoff at the Bridgestone Invitational.

It was his 52nd victory on the PGA Tour, tied for fifth with Byron Nelson.

A week earlier, Woods won the PGA Championship for his 12th major, only six behind Jack Nicklaus.

Woods tied for 60th at the Greater Milwaukee Open in his pro debut 10 years ago this week. His first paycheck was $2,544.

This year, he is averaging $2,512 for every stroke.

"We knew he was coming," Davis Love III said. "And we knew he was pretty good. But no one could have predicted this. He's had the best 10 years in the history of golf. You knew he was a guy you were going to have to beat the rest of your career."

Not many have had much luck.

Love was Woods first victim, losing a playoff to him in the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational, and there have been 46 other players who have finished second to Woods on the PGA Tour. The list doesn't quite go from A to Z, only (Paul) Azinger to (Mike) Weir.

Asked to assess his first decade as a pro, Woods chuckled when reminded that Sunday marked 10 full years on tour.

"More like 70," he said. "It feels like dog years."

Cink has been competing against Woods since he was a teenager, but he was just as skeptical as anyone else that the 20-year-old from Stanford could beat up on the pros the way he did the amateurs.

"I told everybody he's going to have a hard time getting his card," Cink said. "Everyone was saying, 'Tiger is going to do this and that.' I kept reminding them it's not an easy process to go through when you only have five or six tournaments to get your card. I think he ended up winning one or two times and getting in the Tour Championship.

"I stopped making predictions about Tiger at that point. And I'm not going to do it now."

Cink laughs at the memory, but he wasn't alone.

Woods irritated veterans by saying that second place stinks, and by saying he didn't have his "A" game when he won in Dallas.

But he almost always backed it up.

"I think it was that, 'Let's see what he can do out here' attitude," Tom Lehman said. "I don't think everybody expected this, but I think everybody expected something great."

The numbers are astounding beyond the 52 victories, 12 majors and $63 million in earnings.

Woods holds the scoring record to par in all four majors, and he is the only player to win all four professional majors in a row. He went seven years without missing a cut (142 events), and he has won 26 percent of his PGA Tour starts.

"All that is very impressive," Lehman said. "But the thing that impresses me the most is that he comes to play every round, every day of every tournament every year. There is never an 'off' switch. The result is what we see now."

Woods took a few minutes last week to reflect on his first day as a professional, which didn't go entirely as planned. Nike had a splashy ad campaign -- "Hello, world" -- that it wanted to launch the day before the Greater Milwaukee Open. Woods didn't want to wait, so a publicist at IMG called the PGA Tour and dictated a brief statement.

"This is confirm that, as of now, I am a professional golfer."

Woods said he didn't want to set foot at Brown Deer Park Golf Club as someone he wasn't.

"Why delay it?" he said last week. "I didn't need to try to play the media along. It was a fact. I was turning pro."

As he sat next to the Bridgestone Invitational trophy -- his 11th title in the World Golf Championships -- tournament director Tom Strong watched from the side of the room. Strong had been the tournament director in Milwaukee when he offered Woods a sponsor's exemption for his professional debut.

"We had a room that was about 20-by-40 (feet) for interviews and there were over 300 people there," Strong said. "We had 'Duck Soup' coming to play for the pro-am party. We ended up using that stage for Tiger's press conference."

So began a decade of dominance that is defined by any set of numbers -- 52 wins, 12 majors, 142 consecutive cuts, the No. 1 ranking for 406 weeks, official victories in 12 countries.

Thomas Bjorn is the only guy to play all four rounds with Woods and beat him, winning the Dubai Desert Classic in 2001.

He defines Woods' decade by an aura.

"It's difficult to put words on the guy. We've been saying, 'How good is going to be? Is he going to be better than Jack?' And we've talked about that so many times," Bjorn said. "But it's the presence he shows. That's what gets to the other players. He has such an ability to stand on a tee, and you feel him around you.

"We don't get scared of him any more. He's been out here 10 years, and we know the guy very well. But you're aware of him."



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