Tiger’s win in the Masters was big — but it won’t be his biggest

Sometimes it seems like yesterday when I was on hand at the Brown Deer public course in Milwaukee for Tiger Woods’ first professional tournament.

Of course it wasn’t yesterday. It was 23 years ago, and the event he was playing in was the Greater Milwaukee Open – a PGA Tour stop that ended its 42-year run in 2009 when its sponsor failed to renew and a replacement couldn’t be found.

Woods announced he was turning pro on the Tuesday before that tournament, saying to a packed press conference `Hello, world.’ Woods had won his third straight U.S. Amateur four days earlier and he already had signed endorsement deals worth $40 million. Still, Woods needed to borrow $100 from swing coach Butch Harmon to pay the tourney entry fee. Woods was just 20 at the time.

Though Loren Roberts won the Milwaukee tournament in a playoff with Wisconsin favorite Jerry Kelly the story of the week was Tiger Woods. He shot 67 in his first round as a pro and made a hole-in-one in Sunday’s final 18 of the tournament. His finish wasn’t impressive – a tie for 60th place – and he earned just $2,544. Still, he was off and running on a pro career that everyone even remotely connected to golf suspected would reach great heights.

It did. His first PGA win came at Las Vegas a month later and victories came fast and furious after that.

A favorite Woods moment? Most every golfer has them, but mine has nothing to do with his 15 wins in golf’s majors. In my 51st year reporting on golf for a variety of publications, I was on hand for many of Woods’ victories. My favorite came at the 1997 Motorola Western Open at Cog Hill in Lemont.

Woods had won his first Masters earlier that year by a whopping 12 strokes and his popularity soared after that. At the ’97 Western he had a comfortable lead on eventual runner-up Frank Nobilo (now one of the sport’s premier TV analysts) as he walked down the final fairway. The gallery swarmed in behind Woods in celebration long before he reached the green. That’s a sight you see in the British Open but it was basically unheard of on the PGA Tour until then.

And now we come to Woods’ latest victory, the drama-filled nail-biter in the Masters at Augusta National on Sunday. A feel good story, no doubt about it, and this world needs much more of those.

I’m one who felt the media – golf and otherwise — gave too much attention to Woods during most of his comeback attempts in recent years. There were a lot of failures along the way as Woods coped with marital problems, health issues and related personal matters. Focusing on Woods then certainly wasn’t fair to the other players.

Now, though, things have changed. Whatever Tiger does now should and will be scrutinized. Yes, he’s back – but Sunday wasn’t the end-all.

I’m afraid I’ll risk being a spoil-sport. Sunday’s win was exhilarating and may be Woods’ finest golf moment so far. Recovering from the multitude of problems he had is impressive, even inspirational.

However – despite the hyperbole voiced world-wide since his last putt dropped at Augusta – his wasn’t the greatest win in the history of the Masters. That still belongs to Jack Nicklaus. I was there, squeezed into the back row of a Quonset hut that served as the Media Center then, when Nicklaus won his record sixth Masters in 1986 at the age of 46. That was my first of 12 Masters, and Nicklaus became the tourney’s oldest champion.

I’ve been blessed to cover tons of great sports moments over the years, not all of them in golf. I haven’t experienced the electricity that Nicklaus’ back nine charge created that day before or since.

As for Woods, I’m convinced his best day is yet to come. Maybe it’ll come when he breaks Sam Snead’s record for most PGA Tour victories. Snead won 82 times, Woods 81.

Ideally, though, Woods’ greatest moment will come when he tops Nicklaus for most wins in golf’s major championships. Woods needs three wins to match Nicklaus’ record of 18. That’s been Woods’ ultimate target since the day he striped his first drive down the fairway in Milwaukee 23 years agos. No. 19 is within range now, and I believe Woods will get it.