BOB WEST ON GOLF: Lietzke, Stroud share thoughts on Tiger

Published 4:23 pm Tuesday, December 22, 2015

As an unapologetic fan of Tiger Woods and what he meant to golf, my DVR is already set for 5 p.m. Dec. 30 on The Golf Channel. That’s when TGC celebrates a remarkable career that is clearly in decline, with a birthday special titled “Tiger Woods at 40.”
It will mostly be a celebration of the mind-boggling achievements of the guy who made golf cool to the younger generation, who was personally responsible for a massive explosion in the size of PGA Tour purses, who sent TV ratings soaring to heights never dreamed possible. It will be, as with all things Tiger, must-see TV.
CBS producer Lance Barrow, who was there when Tiger shocked the sports world by winning the Masters by 12 shots at age 21, probably summed up his impact on the game as well as anybody in a story written for the Golf Channel’s web site by Ryan Lavner.
“Through the years what he has brought to the telecast is a level of electricity that only comes from him being there,” said Barrow. “The fans are more excited, the announcers are more excited. Tiger was the only player who took golf from the fourth or fifth page of the sports section not only to the front page, but also to the front page above the fold.”
To put a Southeast Texas spin on the Tiger phenomena, I called on my two favorite PGA Tour players — Bruce Lietzke and Chris Stroud — for their insights.
Bruce was on the front end of Tiger’s arrival, indeed was paired with him in his first official PGA Tour event — the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open. Chris came to the tour a decade later, one of those who watched Tiger fist pump his way to unprecedented domination, then reaped the benefits of those swollen purses.
My only mistake in judgment was to think I could work both of them into the same column. Great interview subjects always, they gave me so much interesting material I’m going to have to serve it up in two parts. Chris’ thoughts will be presented next week.
Lietzke, perhaps the most underrated great player of his era, won 14 times on the PGA Tour and six more times on the Champions Tour, including the U.S. Senior Open. He was 45 and had barely made the cut on a muny course in Milwaukee that served as the coming out party for Tiger’s “Hello World”
“The whole tournament seemed to revolve around this kid who had just won his third straight U.S. Amateur the previous week,” Lietzke recalled. “Every pro in the world knew who he was and the Tour had its promotional people working overtime to make sure Tiger’s name and the PGA Tour brand were under the same umbrella.
“We had never seen the Tour roll out a PR game like this before.”
Lietzke was paired with Woods and Corey Pavin for Saturday’s third round.
Although the threesome had an early tee time, thousands of people lined the first fairway. Lietzke remembers the gallery being younger than he was used to seeing and much more rowdy.
What sticks with him about that day was Tiger’s enthusiasm, his fist pumps, the way he talked to his golf ball. He was also left with a vivid recollection of what a force Woods was about to become with his incredible power.
“Brown Deer Park really wasn’t Tiger’s kind of course,” he said. “It was real tight. I only hit five drivers and I think he hit three. My chance to measure my long drive prowess against the new kid on the block came on the par 5, 5th hole. It was barely reachable for me if I could put a little extra on my driver.
“Sure enough, I was able to give it all I had and found the middle of the fairway. Tiger pulled out his driver for the first time and I knew he’d put a little extra into it to please the crowd. When he hit it, he let us know he’d caught it pretty good.”
Pretty good was 55 yards past Lietzke, who needed a wood to reach the green. Tiger got there with a 6-iron.
“He was as long as John Daly and Davis Love when they first came on tour but he had more accuracy,” said Lietzke. “The gallery just had a great time watching him. It was evident he liked being part of the show.”
The former Beaumonter did get the last laugh. He shot 72 to Woods’ 73.
Some things you don’t forget.
Nor would the golf world forget what happened in the next five weeks. Tiger followed an inauspicious T60 in Milwaukee with an 11th in the Canadian Open, signed off on a T5 at the Quad Cities Open, then won in only his fourth start in Las Vegas. He backed that up with a T3 in San Antonio, then won again at
Disney World.
The staid old game of golf would never be quite the same.
Lietzke’s next encounter with Woods was several months later at The Colonial, and it helped give him an up-close look into the insatiable demands on golf’s new superstar. Tiger had come to Fort Worth off back-to-back victories at The Masters and the Byron Nelson in Dallas. Everybody wanted a piece of him.
After the Tuesday pro-am, Bruce’s brother Brian, who was his caddie, gave him four Masters pin flags that his cousin, Beaumont Country Club pro Rob Lietzke, wanted Tiger to autograph for a charity event. It was not an unusual request, and something Bruce had done with the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Greg Norman and other big names.
Nothing, however, prepared him for what was about to happen.
“It was something I never encountered with the other greats,” he said. “There must have been 25-to-30 similar player requests for Tiger, ranging from autographed flags, to golf pictures, to experimental clubs people wanted him to test, to requests for calling sick people who were near death. The locker room attendant said they had to assign him an extra locker for his shoes and golf balls.
“I was so shocked by the number of requests that I considered not putting the flags in his locker at all. I wrote a note to Tiger that this was a charity request and if he couldn’t get around to it, no problem.”
By Saturday afternoon, the flags were in Lietzke’s locker, signed and with a note from Tiger.
“It was that experience that told me this kid was going to have to endure a much brighter spotlight and more scrutiny than any golf great had ever been through before,” said Lietzke. “He was only 22 and I wondered to myself if he had the mental toughness to fight through this new age of sports hysteria.
At least it was new to the game of golf.”
It was, of course, just the beginning of Tigermania, the answer to the mental toughness question would be a resounding yes and Lietzke could document having a front-row seat. Like all the rest of us, I’m betting he’ll be tuned in to “Tiger at 40.”
CHIP SHOTS: The Super Saturday Game at The Babe was played in a best 2 ball format. On the front, there was a three-way tie at plus 2 between teams captained by Thad Borne, Joe Gongora and Craig Fontenot. On the back, there was a tie at minus 1 between the Gongora team and the foursome led by Rick Pritchett . . . The Friday Game at Zaharias was also played in a 2 ball format. On the front the team of Gongora, Cap Hollier, Ron Mistrot and Bill Draugon finished even to deadlock with the foursome of Benny Sharpe, Bobby Wactor, Lee Bertrand and Allen Suire. The Gongora team won the back at minus 1. . .
The Senior Game at The Babe was played in a points format, with the team of Larry Thompsom, Harry Green, Jim Cooper and Bob Barnes winning at minus 2. Second at minus seven was the foursome of Gongora, Hollier, Art Miller and Ray Trahan. Closest to the pin winners were Art Miller (No. 2) and Thompson (No. 7).
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