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Legend was in the making

Woods lived up to billing with Amateur wins in New England

NORTON -- Back then, he was but a rumor. Whispers of his greatness, his special skill, his flair for the spectacular had filtered in from the West Coast, but he was just a kid, so how good could he be?

Like weekend golfers at the local muni, skeptics lined up and surely they licked their chops at the chance to serve witness, no doubt prepared to go back and tell their friends that it was all hype, that they had seen Jack Nicklaus and this kid was no Jack Nicklaus.

The 1992 US Junior Amateur was held at Wollaston Golf Club in Milton.

The 1995 US Amateur was held at stately Newport Country Club in Rhode Island.

They offered New England golf fans the first chances to view this phenom named Tiger Woods, a young man out of Cypress, Calif., who was capable of hitting a golf ball into the next ZIP code. Not only that, but he was an ethnic mix -- his mother Thai, his father black -- that made him even more special.

Let's see what the kid's got. That is what brought people to Wollaston.

Let's see if he's good enough to win again. That is what brought people to Newport, for Woods by now had won four straight USGA titles.

Different courses, Wollaston with its doglegs and trees, Newport with its rock-hard fairways and fescue. Different styles of play, through the air and on the ground. Different faces. Different expectations.

But in both cases he did not disappoint. In both tournaments, he won. In both viewings, New England fans had to have left satisfied; perhaps they could not have predicted to what degree Woods would dominate, but certainly they had to have had the feeling that they had seen a measure of greatness.

Yes, the memories of those wins -- both part of a six-year reign as USGA champion, something no one else has ever done -- bring a smile to Woods's face. The 1992 tournament, he said, was perhaps most special, "because no one had ever done that [win two straight US Juniors] before."

But if you think it was special for him and special for the people who got to watch him, well, it was even more so for the guys whom he beat.

What a story they have to tell the grandchildren.

So they meet again

From Menomonee Falls, Mark Wilson came east with a dream. Menomonee Falls in Wisconsin, that is, to a place outside of Boston, to a golf course he had never seen, into a competition he had never embraced. The storyline to that 1992 US Junior Amateur, however, was very much familiar to the 17-year-old.

"Oh, yeah, I had heard of Tiger. We all had. We knew all about it," said Wilson, whose biggest thrill in golf had been winning the state high school championship a few years earlier.

Like everyone else in the field, Wilson knew Woods was the player to beat, that the kid from California had skills far superior to anyone else gathered off of Route 28, but his thoughts were dedicated solely to getting through 36 holes of qualifying, just getting into match play. Whatever happened, happened. In that mission, he succeeded, easily advancing with a 147.

When the seedings came out, there was an urgency to look and indeed Wilson paid attention to two details: One, he would first meet a kid named Whit Staples; two, if he were to meet Woods, it wouldn't be until the final because they were in different brackets.

"Sure enough, there we were."

Here they are today, too, both Woods and Wilson teeing it up in the Deutsche Bank Championship, a $5 million PGA Tour event that is old hat to the legend, but all-so-new to the onetime Wisconsin state champion. That's because Wilson, after a stellar career at the University of North Carolina and years of grinding it out on minitours and the BUY.com Tour, has made it to the big leagues. He's experiencing the growing pains that come with being a PGA Tour rookie, situated at No. 122 on the money list, employment security hardly part of his daily life.

Wilson's route to the PGA Tour is more in step with what really happens in professional golf, but there isn't an ounce of resentment about how Woods seemingly made it so easy. "He's incredible," said Wilson. "Even back then, you knew it."

"Back then" being Aug. 1, 1992, a warm and stuffy Saturday at Wollaston GC. Having beaten a string of kids named Brian Bombard, Nick Malinowski, Scott Persin, Ryan Armor, and Jonathan Bartlett, Woods was in the final and in position to defend the US Junior title he had won at Bay Hill in Orlando, Fla., a year earlier. Already, he was at a level whereby the opposition barely mattered, so it's understandable if Woods knew nothing about Wilson, whose march into that memorable Saturday had featured wins over Staples, Robert Kerr, Derek Jackson, Matt Filipowicz, and Todd Lynch.

"But I knew what I was up against," said Wilson. "I wasn't nervous, though. I was excited. He was the best and you always want to play the best."

Fans may remember a thrilling match, but admittedly, neither kid was at his best. Hitting an array of irons off the tees on a golf course that really didn't fit his overpowering length, Woods constantly put himself into trouble, lost the first two holes, and was still 2-down through 13. Wilson remembers thinking, "The lead means nothing, this kid can come back, so stay focused."

The comeback began at the par-5 14th, Woods winning with a par when Wilson rattled his second shot, then his third, off trees down the right side. They halved the par-4 15th, but Woods pulled even at the watery par-5 16th, his wedge approach stopping 3 feet from the pin for a birdie. With matching pars at the par-3 17th, they went to the dogleft right, uphill par-4 18th, Woods with his trusty caddie/sports psychologist Jay Brunza, Wilson with a small-town boy's vision of pulling off the stunning upset.

"I don't think about that match every day, but I do think about it a lot," said Wilson. "Losing like that hurt, not because I lost, but because I played the last hole badly. It was not a good ending, but it was a great memory."

On Wollaston's best and most challenging hole, each player was bunkered with their approach shots. Wilson bladed his out and was on the back fringe. Woods came out well short. Wilson's chip was perhaps his worst shot of the day and when he two-putted for double bogey, the phenom from Southern Cal had his second straight US Junior Amateur title, no matter that he clinched it with a bogey.

"I knew he'd come back," Wilson said. "I just tried to stay ahead. I couldn't do it."

They have rarely talked about the match, mostly because each of them is focused on serious PGA Tour matters these days. "Yeah, I wish I won that day," said Wilson, 28. "But I'm proud of coming close. I gave myself a chance against a great, great player. No shame in losing to him."

First-class tourney

Shame? Heck, the guys from the 1995 US Amateur almost consider their defeat to Woods as a badge of honor. And unlike the 1992 US Junior Amateur, which contained many players you have never heard of, the gathering at Newport CC that steamy, dry summer week was quite the opposite.

Amateur icon Jerry Courville was the medalist that year and a look at the clippings produces names such as Matthew Goggin, Notah Begay, Aaron Barber, Joe Kribel, and Chris Riley -- all of them faces in today's professional golf world and all of them match-play participants. Trip Kuehne, who had lost to Woods in the US Amateur final the year before, also made it into match play at Newport, as did Steve Scott, who would lose to Woods in the US Amateur final the next year.

A skinny 16-year-old named Charles Howell shot 72-68 to get into match play, only to lose right away to veteran amateur Tim Jackson. Ben Crane, Craig Barlow, and Garrett Willis -- current PGA Tour members -- all missed out on match play, and our friend from Menomonee Falls, Wilson, beat Kuehne in Round 2 before losing to Jason Enloe, now a member of the Nationwide Tour.

All of it intriguing to trivia nuts, but merely window dressing to the real show: Woods, who by now was 19.

He had won the year before at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., but with New England in the midst of a summer drought, Newport CC was playing as hard and fast as most of these golfers had ever seen. That hardly seemed to matter to Woods, for he shot 68 at Wanumetonomy Golf & Country Club, then 75 at Newport to breeze into match play.

Which is where memories were made forever for a group of guys who can say they played the great Tiger Woods. Patrick Lee was the first to fall, followed by a young, quiet Texan named Chad Campbell. Yes, the same Chad Campbell who nearly won the PGA Championship two weeks ago and is one of the PGA Tour's brightest young talents.

"I was really excited to play him," said Campbell. "No one expected me to win and a lot of people were watching, more than I was used to. But I didn't go in scared, though obviously I respected what he had done."

The Woods win was 4 and 2, then he beat Sean Knapp, a wonderful amateur from the Pittsburgh area, Scott Kammann of White Pine, Tenn., and Mark Plummer, the legend from Maine. It got him into a final against another perennial amateur force, George "Buddy" Marucci.

In each case, Woods prevailed. But in each case, the loser won a lifetime memory.

"I get reminded of it all the time," said Plummer, the 13-time State Amateur champion from Maine and one of the sport's terrific characters. With his homemade swing and big, red mustache, and freewheeling approach, Plummer never saw himself as a threat, but he also wasn't about to withdraw.

"I was surprised at how calm I was. I was 43, he was 19, but what the heck, there were already two or three guys I shouldn't have beaten, so I thought, `Maybe he'll have a bad day and I'll have a good day.' "

Not quite, because Woods won, 2 up.

In the previous match, Knapp had also gone in knowing he had nothing to lose. He had ousted Woods's good friend and collegiate teammate, Begay, in Round 2, and what stands out in his mind is a putting green scene the day of his match. Knapp said Woods kept missing the same 10-foot putt, no matter how many times he stroked it, and finally the youngster's temper flared.

"He was cackling, going on about his putter, and I'm thinking it could be an omen. Then his dad looked at him, then went for a walk, and sure enough, he made every single putt. Dead center, not the corners, either."

It was a 2-and-1 defeat, said Knapp, that was never that close.

"There was a presence about him. It was awesome and I've played with all these great amateurs," said Knapp, who was 34 at the time and will never forget the par-5 seventh hole, a brute dead straight into the wind. Playing cautiously, Knapp left his approach some 50 feet from the pin, yet he somehow knocked down a nearly impossible putt for birdie. Surely, he figured he had won the hole and he stole a glance at Woods.

"He was Zen-like," Knapp said. "He just stared. Then he plowed in a 30-footer."

Later, Knapp hit what he felt was one of the best shots of the match, perhaps one of the best of his life. Bunkered with a horrible lie, he didn't think he could get it close, yet he pulled that off, too.

"He walked past me with that glare, then looked at me and said, `Great shot.' I tell you, that said a lot to me about him as a person and it meant a lot to me. I tell you, he's a man's man."

Marucci agrees.

"For me, it was just exciting to finally get into the final at the age of 43, after trying for such a long time," said the successful businessman. "Then, to play him, it was amazing to see some of the things he can do. Physically, he hit it farther than he does now, but he's got the control now that he didn't then. I remember him hitting a 6-iron over the green at the 215-yard fourth hole."

The match went back-and-forth and Marucci concedes he was surprised to have held in so long against a younger and much stronger player. But Newport's firm and fast sod was to Woods's benefit and he prevailed by only a slim 2-up margin.

"What was most impressive was his demeanor," said Marucci, who played alongside Woods 10 days later in the 1995 Walker Cup. "He was very cordial and it's nice to see an athlete committed to the degree that he is."

Marucci and Woods exchanged autographs on US Amateur Championship flags. Knapp went a step further, asking for Woods's signature on his golf bag. Plummer regrets not doing likewise.

"But they were obviously smarter than me," he said with a laugh, very well knowing that his pals in Maine know what happened that hot August day in 1995. "Oh, yeah. I'm more famous for losing that one time than anything I've ever won."

Competitors all of them, there's not a one who was glad to lose that day. Saying you beat Tiger Woods would be something very, very special. But no shame in saying you lost to him, either.

"I figure he learned a lot the day he played me," said Plummer, more laughter coming from a truly passionate golfer without an ounce of pretense. "I inspired him."

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