Jumbo Elliott, who has seen Tiger Woods since Day 1 on Tour, offers comeback advice

Jumbo Elliott, who has seen Tiger Woods since Day 1 on Tour, offers comeback advice

PGA Tour

Jumbo Elliott, who has seen Tiger Woods since Day 1 on Tour, offers comeback advice

John “Jumbo” Elliott remembers where he was for Tiger Woods’ first shot as a professional.

In the fairway, about 50 yards behind.

“Bet you if you look it up, you’ll see he hit a driver about 338 yards,” Elliott said.

Turns out that 20 years hasn’t dulled the memory, because Elliott is nearly spot on. Woods’ first swing as a professional produced a roaring drive that officially was marked as a 336-yarder.

Of course, “the rest is history,” as Elliott said, because Woods used that exemption into the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open as a springboard to arguably the most impactful career in PGA Tour history. Much has been written, tweeted and discussed this week on the 20th anniversary of Woods’ debut in professional golf, and Elliott still gets a chuckle out of his front-row seat to history.

“I remember (TV reporter) Jimmy Roberts asking me something about the world watching me, and I said, ‘I don’t think anyone was watching me,’ ” Elliott said, laughing.

A journeyman, Elliott was a PGA Tour member for the third time in 1996, and he was coming off of his best finish of the season, a T-14 at the Greater Vancouver Open. He arrived in Milwaukee knowing about the massive deals Woods had signed with Nike and other sponsors and remembers saying to Robert Gamez after a practice round, “I’ll probably get paired with him.”

Why did Elliott think that? Because he had been paired with Justin Leonard when the young Texan made his pro debut and ditto Charles Howell III. Sure enough, Elliott saw the pairings for the GMO and there he was, alongside Jeff Hart and the phenom from Cypress, Calif.

Years later, Elliott concedes the moment didn’t leave him in awe. To him, Woods was just an amateur, no matter how much money Nike had coughed up (reportedly five years for $40 million). On one side of the clubhouse, Elliott hit balls on the range and wondered why there weren’t that many people watching Woods.

“Then I went through the locker room to get another sleeve of balls and when I got to the other side, I saw 25 security guards and so many people it might as well have been the Sunday of a U.S. Open.”

More than comfortable, Elliott took 3-wood and ripped one into the middle of the fairway. Then, he watched as Woods pounded a driver with emphatic force.

Then a few days shy of his 33rd birthday, Elliott could move it, but clearly the heralded Woods was another notch or two higher. Still, Elliott said he hit 18 greens that day and signed for 68, a pretty good day. Hart shot 69. Woods? He shot 67 to trail Nolan Henke by five.
If there is a lasting memory from that day, it isn’t anything Woods did on the course; it’s what he did in the locker room.

“After I signed my card, I was outside when a guy told me his daughter wanted Tiger Woods’ autograph but he didn’t sign. So I went in the locker room and asked Tiger to sign it for the little girl. He did.

“Next day I saw a story in the paper and the girl’s quote was, ‘My favorite golfer isn’t Tiger Woods. It’s Jumbo Elliott.’ Pretty funny.”

The next day, Woods shot 69, but Elliott got inflicted by his nemesis — “the putting yips and a bad short game.” The Connecticut native shot 73 and missed the cut. But it wasn’t the last time he would cross paths with Woods. Two weeks later they were paired together at the Quad City Classic and then there was the chance meeting at the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock.

“I walked up to him on the range and he saw me and said, ‘Jumbo.’ I told him that it was like I had fallen asleep for about six years and here he was with all those majors. I couldn’t believe it. He looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘Neither can I.’ ”

Elliott also played the 1999 and 2005 seasons on the PGA Tour and a host of other years on the Web.com Tour. He still has a passion for competition and at 52 has won a handful of senior tournaments in New England, where he also takes on younger kids in the state opens. Elliott has aspirations for the PGA Tour Champions — he recently Monday qualified into the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open — but also caddies summers at Shelter Harbor in Charlestown, R.I., and winters at Dye Preserve in Jupiter, Fla., not far from where Woods lives.

No, they’ve never crossed paths in Jupiter, but should they, Elliott might ask whether he could offer advice. If Woods were to extend the offer, Elliott said his message would be simple.

“That day (in Milwaukee) he had an incredible short game, and I asked him where he learned to chip. He told me he learned to chip by hitting shots over his mother’s china in his living room. He was so good, and here he’s been taking all these lessons to learn how to chip. I don’t understand it.

“I’d tell him to just go back to the way he did it over his mother’s china.”

That potential advice may or may not ever be handed off, but Elliott firmly believes this: “If his body holds up – and that’s a big if – but I really believe he can still win majors. I’m 52, and I’m playing better and shooting lower scores than I did at 32. He was incredible and could still be.”

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