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Every player and coach at the 1996 NCAA Championship was handed a ballot, and Arron Oberholser paused for a brief moment before selecting the player of the year in college golf. During his junior season at San Jose State he’d played some of the best golf of his life, winning six events, including a memorable shootout at Pasatiempo. He was unquestionably one of the two best players in the country, worthy of serious consideration for the Haskins Award, but after enduring another historic beatdown, he couldn’t summon the audacity to vote for himself.
“It’s over,” Oberholser told his teammates, checking the box next to Tiger Woods’ name.
In the midst of an unforgettable postseason run, Woods had won Pac-10s by 14 shots. He had run away at regionals, too, beating Oberholser head-to-head. And now here he was again, on the brink of the historic Triple, not just racing ahead at the NCAA Championship but throttling the deepest field of the year. Eyeing his eighth win of the season, Woods was nine shots clear after 54 holes at the Honors Course, expertly dissecting the hardest venue these mere mortals had ever seen.
Still, back in the team van, Oberholser’s teammates goaded him, telling him he was every bit as deserving – never mind the overwhelming evidence suggesting otherwise.
“I’m not the best college player in the United States – I’m the second-best, and that’s fine,” he told them. “Unless I shoot 60 tomorrow and he shoots 80, it’s over, man.”
“Well, one of those happened,” Oberholser said with a chuckle, picking up the story 25 years later.
“The other did not.”
* * *
WHAT UNFOLDED AT THE Honors Course a quarter-century ago has largely been lost to history. None of the round recaps have been archived online, and an NCAA media liaison came up empty on scorecards, pairings, statistics – everything sans a few photos. “If I didn’t have the pictures and final results to prove it actually took place,” the NCAA rep said, “I would wonder if it ever happened ...”
Even Woods’ Stanford teammates, now in their mid-40s, have hazy memories of that week outside Chattanooga, Tennessee. They knew Woods, then 20, won his one and only NCAA individual title. They knew they fell short as a team, after winning in 1994 (without Woods) and losing a playoff the following year. And they knew that it marked Woods’ 11th college title in 27 starts – an unfathomable 41% winning percentage that portended his legendary pro career. Indeed, 10 months after his NCAA romp, Woods was the runaway winner at the Masters.
“He did things you’d consider impossible unless you’d seen it,” said Joel Kribel, a freshman on that ’96 Stanford squad.
Woods’ sophomore season was interrupted by a few forays elsewhere, but when he did play to his level, it was oftentimes a matter of not just whether he’d win, but by how many. At the Pac-10 Championship, he smashed his own course record at Big Canyon Country Club with a 61 in the morning. A few hours later, after hearing their course had been desecrated, the members came out to watch Woods break the original record again in the afternoon, this time with a 65. He wound up winning by 14. “It was literally like a Tour event with all of the roars,” said Conrad Ray, a junior on the ’96 team who is now the Stanford men’s coach.
TigerMania hadn’t yet kicked into high gear, but there was an unmistakable sense that something special was afoot. For two years Woods was the rare larger-than-life collegian; superfans would pull up alongside the Stanford team van, laying on the horn, wanting to glimpse Tiger or try to get his autograph. “So we’d keep the window up, scribble on a hat and throw it back to them at the intersection,” Ray said. “Those poor guys to this day probably have it on their mantle thinking it’s a legit autograph.”
“It was eye-opening from so many different perspectives,” Kribel said. “Being away at college, you’re doing things on your own for the first time, and then you’re thrown into that traveling circus. It was a little bit of a fiasco. There was just a scene wherever we went.”
But for all the distractions and inconveniences, it still seemed a cushy arrangement for the rest of the team. Simply follow the old caddie mantra – show up, keep up, shut up – and they should be in contention. “Except it was weirdly stressful for me,” Ray said, “because I knew how talented he was. If I didn’t shoot 80, we’d probably have a good chance to win. The guys like me at the back of the lineup, we knew we had this monster out front.”
Woods shouldered much of that burden, too. With a team that had graduated studs like Notah Begay III and Casey Martin in spring 1995, Woods understood he likely needed to shoot in the 60s to give a now-inexperienced squad a realistic shot. “He was pretty good about it, but he carried a lot of pressure with him,” Ray said. “He knew Stanford’s place on the leaderboard was riding on him. We needed him. But it never, ever felt personal, like, What are you guys doing out there?”
Fueled by Woods’ epic performances, Stanford entered nationals brimming with confidence as one of the top-ranked teams in the country. All of the heavy hitters would be there – Oberholser, Texas’ Brad Elder, N.C. State’s Tim Clark – and they geared up for what was always the stiffest challenge of the season. They still weren’t prepared for this brutality. The Honors Course was long (7,039 yards), narrow and penal. There were 10 times as many scores in the 80s (82) as the 60s (eight). After watching the early carnage, a local writer penned that he’d swim across one of the course’s ponds if anyone finished 72 holes under par.
“That place ate my lunch,” Oberholser said. “It was the most intimidating course I played in college.”
“It was hard as hell,” Kribel said. “The grass off the fairway, I felt like it was somewhere between knee- and waist-high. You’re lucky if you could find it and luckier if you could get it back in play. With the team counting on you, you were puckering on every shot.”
Still, Woods seemed unfazed, so loose in practice that he battled SMU’s Hank Kuehne in a long-drive contest and helped straighten out Ray’s putting stroke. Determined to leave a winner in what would be his final college start, Woods started solidly, firing one of only two opening rounds in the 60s and sitting one back of Arizona State’s Pat Perez.
“Tiger used to always pure it,” Ray said. “When you strike it as well as he did, not much can go wrong. Back then there was a much bigger dispersion. Guys that couldn’t stripe it were scrambling their butt off to shoot a score; it was damage control rather than who could make the most birdies. But he was a different animal.”
Fans turned out in droves to witness the phenomenon in person. Jerry Chang, Stanford’s senior leader and one of Woods’ closest friends, recalls an early moment in the tournament when he was standing on the tee at 16, an into-the-wind, 210-yard par 3 that required a carry over water. The difficulty of the hole always caused a one- or two-group backup, and Chang remembers waiting to tee off, hoping to get his shot off before the horde following Woods descended.
“I didn’t get my wish,” he said. “So I’m teeing off, and there are thousands of people waiting on the tee box. I proceed to hit two balls into the water and make an 8 or 9 on the hole. Over the years, I jokingly blame Tiger for bringing these big crowds to college golf and all the nerves that go with playing in front of crowds. I guess that’s what makes his rounds even more amazing, because he was doing all of this while thousands of people were watching him.”
They witnessed quite the show: Woods began to pull away, following up a second-round 67 with a 69. Despite what many viewed as an over-the-top course setup, he posted 11-under 195 – putting him ahead by nine shots, with just three other players under par after 54 holes.
“It was just disbelief,” Kribel said. “We were just kind of nudging each other: Can you believe what he’s doing for us? When he did that at Pac-10s, it’s like, OK, it’s just a conference tournament. But he did this against the best in college golf. He made them all – us all – look pedestrian. It’s indescribable how much better he was.
“But it also made you feel lesser, like, How come I can’t even come close? There were a lot of good players there, and they weren’t within nine shots going into the last round. It’s tough. It makes you question your play at the next level, like, Is everybody out there gonna be this good? What’s gonna happen to us? But he was a different breed.”
In the larger sporting landscape, Woods’ heroics barely registered. This was a different era in college golf: Golf Channel cameras were there, but they didn’t cover the action live. There were only a handful of writers on-site, like the late, great Golfweek writer Ron Balicki, and a few local scribes. They didn’t have up-to-the-minute scoring or on-course leaderboards or social media. “All you did was go back to your room and go do it again,” Ray said. “There wasn’t much hype. Back then, Tiger was doing it quietly [on a national scale]. I’d love to see a modern-day Tiger and the success he had. It’d be off the charts. Astronomical.”
If the enormity of the achievement weighed on Woods, he didn’t betray any nerves. Mentally exhausted from the event, he and Chang rarely talked about golf and often returned to their hotel room to watch TV or work on homework. “I do remember shaking my head thinking Tiger beat me by 18 shots in the second round,” Chang said. “Thankfully he didn’t remind me of that fact.” One night, they went to Applebee’s for a de facto team banquet, where Earl chatted up the other proud golf dads. On the eve of the final round, they huddled one last time as a team and shared what they all meant to each other. “Tiger really enjoyed that team aspect,” Kribel said.
And yet, there was no coronation. After all, they were less than two months removed from the 1996 Masters, when Greg Norman infamously surrendered a six-shot lead on the final day. “He didn’t take any lead for granted,” Chang said. But more than that, Woods wasn’t caught up chasing individual glory – with Stanford trailing by 20 shots, he mostly wanted to be part of a historic comeback.
That dream faded quickly, with the final round featuring the most difficult conditions of the week. Scores soared, and not even Woods was immune. So spectacular for so long, he carded the highest score of his college career. He triple-bogeyed the ninth hole after hitting his pitch shot too hard and running it into the water, then followed with four consecutive bogeys – for a brief time giving his closest pursuers, like Arizona’s Rory Sabbatini, a glimmer of hope that he might come all the way back to the field.
“It wasn’t until the 14th or 15th hole that I heard that Tiger was having a challenging day,” Chang said. “I guess it was easy for us to take for granted how well he played all year to assume he was going to automatically shoot in the 60s again. But the Honors Course was a beast.”
Ultimately, Woods steadied himself to post an 80, a shocking score for such a decorated frontrunner but still good enough for a four-shot victory. At 3-under 275, he was the only player to finish the tournament under par. All these years later, no one knows whether the local writer kept his word and swam across the pond.
“I’m exhausted right now,” Woods told reporters afterward. “People will never know how much it took out of me. I had to dig really deep, give all I had.”
As shocking as Woods’ 80 was, it still wasn’t the worst score of the day for the Cardinal – they also counted David Garcia’s 82. Unable to rely on a sub-par score from its superstar, Stanford dropped back to fourth, 19 shots behind Arizona State’s 34-over par winning total.
“We felt like we were letting him down to a certain extent,” Kribel said.
The day wasn’t a complete loss, of course. With Woods’ victory, Stanford could boast an NCAA individual champion for the first time since Sandy Tatum in 1942. Chang also claimed bragging rights, at least for a day. Despite prior rounds of 85-80, he closed out his college career with a personal-best 70, tying the low round of the day and beating Woods by 10.
“He likes to rub Tiger’s face in it,” Ray said.
“Well, as much as you can for somebody who kicked the s--t out of us as much as he did,” Kribel said.
Few knew at the time, but the victory also marked the end of Woods’ short but storied college career. In the aftermath, there was no grand sendoff. They didn’t have the NCAA trophy presentation live on TV. They didn’t fly home on private jets. They didn’t spend the night scrolling social media to see the frenzied reaction. Former Arizona State coach Randy Lein recalled talking to Woods at the airport and noted one overriding emotion: Relief.
He was a rocket cleared for blastoff, and the next few months were dizzying. Despite the objections (delusions?) of Oberholser’s San Jose State teammates, Woods was named the landslide winner of the Haskins Award. He would capture another memorable U.S. Amateur title a few months later. He’d turn pro after that, and the sport would never be the same.
Those who got whipped by Woods 25 years ago weren’t surprised by what would soon become of his career – all the hoopla, the mystique, the demoralizing dominance. The 1996 NCAAs underscored what they already knew, what they’d come to expect.
“We didn’t think anybody outside the top couple players in the world could do what he was doing at that time,” Kribel said. “You couldn’t hide from the fact that this dude was absolutely unbelievable.”