Close encounter with a one-of-a-kind player

His Tuesday practice round complete, journeyman pro Jeff Hart walked into the Brown Deer Golf Club clubhouse for lunch. That's when he noticed the pairings sheet for his opening two rounds of the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open.

Hart found his name, his tee time, then his playing partners.

"Uh-oh," Hart said that day. "This is going to be a little different."

Different? Try historic. On the afternoon of Aug. 29, 1996, a 20-year-old Tiger Woods, attired in his new Nike clothing ensemble, stepped onto the No. 1 tee box at Brown Deer as a professional. The crowd was as thick as U.S. Open rough -- as many as seven deep in some spots. John Elliott, a veteran pro from Connecticut, took one look at the massive gallery and said to Hart, "This must be what it's like to play in the final group of a major."

The starter introduced Woods, but said he was from the state of Florida.

"I thought you were from California?" Hart said later.

"Taxes," said Woods, who was born and raised in Southern California but established an official residence in Florida so he could avoid state taxes.

Woods was so nervous about his debut that he bombed his drive about 330 yards down the middle of the tight par-4 opening hole. His tee shot was more than 60 yards past Hart's drive. Hart hit 5-iron into the green. Woods hit sand wedge and didn't even take a full swing.

"It took me about one shot to tell he was a little different from everybody else," said Hart during a recent phone interview from a Nationwide Tour event in Rochester, N.Y.

"I'd never seen length like that, power like that. It was pretty alarming."

Do you remember where you were when Woods took that first swing as a pro? Hart and Elliott will never forget. How can they? For two wonderfully chaotic days, they were part of the most-watched threesome in golf.

There was Hart, the then-36-year-old Solana Beach, Calif., pro whose own debut came years earlier at a mini-tour event in Florida. So obscure was the tournament that exactly zero spectators saw Hart hit his first shot. "And I still barely got it off the tee," he said.

There was Elliott, who actually had played with the then-17-year-old Woods at the 1993 Nissan Los Angeles Open. "I don't think anybody knew that," Hart said recently. "He shot mid-70s."

Woods shot 74-78 at Riviera and missed the cut. He was still a year away from entering Stanford and winning his first U.S. Amateur. He was gifted -- everyone could see that -- but being a prodigy guarantees nothing. Even in 1996, when Woods joined Hart and Elliott on the first tee at Brown Deer, nobody really knew for sure.

"He was long," said Elliott, who was 32 when Woods made his pro debut. "He was OK, but it was nothing different. I didn't see the greatness you see now."

Nike did -- or so it hoped. The company had just signed Woods to a $40 million endorsement deal. At the time, golf-related sales reportedly accounted for less than 2 percent of Nike's revenue. Now, said a Nike spokesperson, golf revenues have doubled since 1996.

Woods now uses Nike clubs and balls, but in '96, his bag held Mizuno irons, Cleveland wedges, a Cobra driver, and a Titleist 3-wood, putter and balls. Mike "Fluff" Cowan was his caddie, not Steve Williams. And those freebie Nike shirts hung loosely on Woods' skinny upper body like window curtains.

So much has changed. So much has stayed the same.

Woods' debut at the GMO prompted ESPN (Elliott's residence at the time was listed as Bristol, Conn., home to ESPN headquarters) to broadcast the first two rounds of the tournament. Everything was up: ratings, galleries, concession sales. Experts estimated that Woods' appearance helped contribute to a $2.2 million economic impact in the Milwaukee area.

A herd of media chronicled his every swing. Hart figures there must have been at least 8,000 people, probably more, following the threesome.

"And yet, it seemed like it was nothing to him," Hart said.

Hart shot 69 the first day. Elliott shot 68, hitting all 18 greens in regulation. But Woods shot 67.

"I remember telling friends, 'This guy can do things that I'd never seen physically,'" Hart said. "He wasn't throwing away shots. But the physical part is what I remember: hitting 5-iron 230 yards in the air, stopping it like a wedge. This was a whole different thing I was witnessing powerwise."

Hart shot 73 the next day and missed the cut. He was joined below the line by Elliott, who couldn't conquer the putting yips. Woods shot 69 to make it into the weekend field. GMO officials were so happy they wanted to shower in champagne.

By the end of Saturday's round, Woods was toast. He had won the U.S. Amateur a week earlier, but the heavy playing schedule (counting the Amateur and GMO, nine rounds in seven days) took its toll. He shot 73, the second-highest total of the third round. Afterward, he skipped practice and crashed. The next day, he shot 68, including a hole in one on No. 14, finished 7-under for the tournament and received a check for, ta-da, $2,544. These days, that might not even pay the chlorine bill for his mansion's pool.

Hart still grinds away, playing tag team with the PGA and Nationwide tours. His career earnings of $507,665 in 167 tournaments is less than Woods made in six Tour events in '96. Hart is married and has two daughters who stifle yawns whenever reminded of the Woods-dad pairing.

"I have friends who still bring it up," he said. "It doesn't say much about my career when the highlight is playing with somebody else."

Meanwhile, Elliott would later be paired with Woods at the 1996 Quad City Classic. Woods made six birdies in a row during his second-round 64. "That's when I started to see the good stuff," said Elliott, who asked Woods to pose for a photo with him during the tournament.

Eight years later, when they were both playing in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, Elliott couldn't help himself.

"You know, after I played with you in '96, if I had fallen asleep and woke up to see you'd won 40 tournaments, I wouldn't have believed it," he told Woods.

"I wouldn't have, either," Woods said.

Elliott believes it now.

"He's going to win 125 tournaments and probably 30 majors before he's done," said Elliott, who, like Hart, has bounced between the Tour and the Nationwide circuit. Hart and Elliott have a combined zero Tour victories compared with Woods' 52. But for two days in 1996, they were part of Tiger Mania in its infancy.

"It's neat to be able to say I did it, especially for his first round as a pro," Hart said. "But none of us could have predicted he'd do this."

If they had, Hart wouldn't still be answering the one question that haunts him 10 years after Woods' pro debut.

"Everybody says, 'Why didn't you run off with his scorecard?' "

Why? Because that's not Hart's style. Anyway, he has those memories. Maybe that's not such a bad career highlight, after all.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.