A TIGER INVITATION I’M GLAD I DIDN’T TURN DOWN

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open, plus NCAA Final Four connections, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

There they were, lined up, one shot apart among the leader board at the 1997 “Augusta Invitational.” It’s called The Masters.

Tom Kite had Tommy Tolles beaten by a stroke after 72 holes, 282-283. At 284, there was a legend, Tom Watson, a multiple major tournament champion. He was followed by a pair of golfers at 285, Constantina Rocca and Paul Stankowski. Previous Masters champion Fred Couples, two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer, British Open champion Justin Leonard, PGA Champions Davis Love III and Jeff Sluman closed out their tournament with identical 286s.

At 270 stood Tiger Woods. A dozen shots ahead. Dominant. A record 18-under par. Augusta would never be the same.

He’d won The Masters.

0748-TigerWoods
Tiger Woods, shown here winning the 1997 Masters. Sixteen years earlier, a 6-year-old Eldrick “Tiger” Woods showed up to play a 9-hole exhibition match at Redlands Country Club. (Photo by Wikipedia Commons.)

It would be the lead story in the April 14, 1997 Redlands Daily Facts.

The local angle was simple.

Sixteen years earlier, Redlands Country Club head golf professional Norm Bernard had called me with an invitation. Maybe it was an assignment. Or a request. Maybe he was begging.

Little Eldrick Woods, already known to the world as Tiger, had been invited to Redlands for a 9-hole exhibition match. He was about to turn six.

Norm and I started a little verbal sparring. I didn’t necessarily want to be there. He very definitely wanted me to be there.

“I don’t know, Norm. A 9-hole exhibition?”

Would our readers even care?

“What else have you got going on?” Norm asked.

In truth, he was correct. Nothing, at least locally, was taking place. School was shut down for winter break. Except for the San Bernardino Kiwanis Tournament, a basketball extravaganza for Redlands High, nothing of a sporting nature was taking place.

It just seemed like I could be working on something more meaningful that day.

“Aw, Norm.”

“C’mon. I’ll buy you lunch.”

He was being as gracious as possible. While being demanding. Charming. A little pushy. Norm was always under fire at that club. Private golf members can be demanding. They want their privacy. They also wanted a little publicity when it mattered.

Redlands CC was full of private club members that were movers and shakers in our community. One of them, Bill Moore, had been my publisher. There had long been rumblings and grumblings about country club coverage in our local pages.

The women’s club had its set of demands.

Of course, there was the club tournament.

Weekly twilight play, results in the summer. Usually, it was the same names.

It was Norm’s job to process results for newspaper publication.

No resentment from me. All part of the job. Bowling had its own set of demands. So did recreation tennis. We had local motorsports. The soccer people were always on the move. The sports section is for everyone. Any achievements should be duly noted.

That was the undercurrent of the relationship between the local country club and the local newspaper.

The year was 1982, just after Christmas. Bill Moore, who’d sold the paper a year or so earlier, was gone. His country club cronies were no longer bugging him to light the fire under me. Meanwhile, they’d light the fire under Norm. No longer were there job-related demands hanging over my head. This was truly my decision. I had to admit I was a little curious.

The next day would be little Tiger’s sixth birthday. Already, the little guy had been celebrated on television, once on the Mike Douglas Show as a three-year-old that could amazingly swing a golf club. Bob Hope, an avid golfer in his own right, was also a guest that day.

Another appearance came on ABC-TV’s “That’s Incredible,” hosted by John Davidson, Fran Tarkenton and Cathy Lee Crosby.

Norm had known Tiger’s dad, Earl Woods. Because of that association, he’d invited Tiger to play golf at Redlands.

Fourteen-year-old Michele Lyford, who would one day go on to win the girls’ CIF golf championship, was selected to be Tiger’s playing opponent on that day. There was a small gallery as Tiger finished the nine-hole round by shooting 47.

Lyford was also the champion of the 1986 Junior World in the older 15-17 age category, an event held every summer in San Diego. It should also be pointed out that other yearly winners included Carolyn Hill, Kim Saiki, Brandie Burton (who was from nearby Rialto) and Christi Erb – future LPGA professionals.

Tiger, of course, was the headliner at Redlands on Dec. 27, 1981.

The highlight of the day was, perhaps, the final hole. Tiger had knocked his ball smack into the bunker, smack dab against the lip – an impossible shot for even the most experienced of golfers.

The kid was poised even then.

One day shy of his sixth birthday, Tiger took out his club and hit his shot backward, into the chipping area in front of the green.

Then he knocked the ball in position for a double bogey. Even then, he was trained to minimize trouble. Of the 30, or so, people in attendance for this little showcase match, they had to be awestruck at his club selection.

No one discussed the shot. No one told him what to do. The kid was left alone.

His father, Earl, wasn’t present. His mother, Kultilda, was watching quietly nearby.

This little golf prodigy had played bogey golf throughout the match. That in itself was incredible, John, Fran and Cathy Lee!

Afterward, the club gave him a birthday party.

Afterward, I’m embarrassed to say, I handed this little guy a piece of paper – and a pen. Yes, I asked him for his autograph. He made his letters carefully, his little tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth while he wrote, “Eldrick Woods.”

Wish I still had that little slip of paper.

Sixteen years later, he won the Masters. That was just the beginning.

I forgot what Michele shot that day.

My column on April 14, 1997 was all about Tiger. Redlands. Winning the Masters. My reluctance to cover it. I’d written, “I’m glad Norm convinced me to come.”

Norm called later to recall the memories.

Any more birthday parties you want me to cover, Norm?