Before Tiger Woods became golf’s greatest closer, before he turned out more lights than a New York City blackout, there was Ed Fiori.
The great Woods has held the 54-hole lead 59 times in PGA Tour events and he’s won 55 of those, which means it’s literally possible to count the times he didn’t win on one hand.
The first of those four missed opportunities came in the 1996 Quad City Classic. Woods led by one starting the final round and was chasing his first tour victory.
The world, it seemed, came Coal Valley, Ill., to watch even though the Presidents Cup was being played outside Washington, D.C.
And Fiori, whose career was already headed down the sunset highway, beat Tiger.
It may be more accurate to say that Woods beat himself, his game and his competitive cool unraveling together, but it was Fiori who wound up holding the trophy and, 82 Tiger victories later, a piece of the game’s history.
If it felt like an upset on that September Sunday 23 years ago, it seems downright monumental now.
“It worked out in my favor. I treasure the memory,” Fiori said by phone last week from his home in Houston.
It happened just two weeks after Woods’ famous “Hello, world” professional debut at the Greater Milwaukee Open, where he had finished tied for 60th amid the fanfare. Woods had subsequently finished 11th at the Bell Canadian Open and was trying to make enough money to earn his PGA Tour card without having to go through Q-School.
Fiori, meanwhile, showed up at the Quad City Classic after getting a cortisone shot in his left elbow before leaving home. A three-time PGA Tour winner, Fiori was 43 years old, playing on a special medical extension after having rotator cuff surgery, and he was 14 years removed from his last victory.
He was in discussions with a boat company about a side job taking clients fishing but Fiori – who earned the nickname “The Grip” for the 10-finger grip he used – still had some golf left in him.
“I played a practice round on Wednesday and played God-awful,” Fiori recalled. “My caddie told me, ‘Just do the best you can.’ On Thursday morning, it was like someone else got into my body and started playing golf.”
By Saturday, Fiori – tagged as “portly” in some newspaper reports - had played himself into a pairing with Woods. Suddenly, he was in the middle of the mayhem.
“I didn’t know how I was going to act,” Fiori said. “I hadn’t been in contention for a while. I introduced myself on the first tee and said, ‘Hey Tiger, think I can get a couple of autographs for my kids? They’re about the same age you are.’
“He said, ‘No problem,’ and got that big grin on his face.”
Surrounded by enormous galleries, Fiori adopted a simple game plan: He did not watch Woods hit shots except on par-3 holes.
“It was very intimidating,” Fiori said. “I’d watch on par-3s where I’d hit a 5-iron and he’d hit a 9-iron. I never watched one of those drives.
“I remember at the 13th hole, a par-4, I hit a good drive and Mark Lye, who was doing TV, came by and said, ‘Tiger only got you by 93 yards.’ You just knew Tiger was going to be good but I didn’t know he would be anywhere near as good as he was.”
In the interview room on Saturday afternoon, Fiori borrowed a line from Lee Trevino.
“I said, ‘Boys, there’s a new sheriff in town and his name is Tiger Woods,’ ” Fiori said.
On Sunday, Fiori teed off with Woods in the last group, trailing the 20-year-old by a stroke. In his third professional start, Woods was 18 holes from his first victory.
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On the par-4 fourth hole, Woods pull-hooked his tee shot into a pond below the fairway on the left side. After taking a penalty drop, his third shot caught a tree and ricocheted into the same pond. Woods eventually two-putted for a quadruple-bogey 8.
“I hit driver, 3-wood on the front edge and after we putt out, I see the standard bearer giving him a quadruple bogey. I said, ‘How'd he get that?’ I never saw any of it,” said Fiori, who took a one-stroke lead after the fourth.
Tied for the lead on the seventh hole, Fiori watched Woods four-putt for a double bogey, giving the veteran a lead he would not surrender.
Fiori wound up shooting 67 to win by two strokes ahead of Andrew Magee. Chris Perry and Steve Jones finished three back while Woods’ final-round 72 dropped him into a tie for fifth with Jeff Maggert, Hugh Royer III and Phil Blackmar.
“I’m ticked off,” Woods told reporters that Sunday. “I had a three-shot lead and let it all get away in a heartbeat.”
Woods would win the first of his 82 PGA Tour titles three weeks later at the Las Vegas Invitational while Fiori would make only 14 more cuts in his tour career. Fiori won a Champions tour event in 2004 then called it a career after the next year when chronic back pain made playing too difficult.
Fiori eventually had spinal-fusion surgery – sound familiar? Fiori’s was done in a different part of the back than Woods’ fusion and it left him without enough mobility to swing a club. Fiori said he doesn’t play golf any more and he swims for exercise.
“Boring as hell,” he said.
Nearly a quarter-century ago, Fiori marveled at Woods while he was beating him. All these years later, he appreciates Woods even more.
“I love it when he plays good,” Fiori said. “It’s like watching Michael Jordan or Tom Brady play. … I’m happy for the kid.”
As for himself, Fiori still gets recognized around Houston and once in a while someone asks about Tiger and the Quad City Classic and he’s happy to tell his story, the glow stretching across the years.
“I had my day in the sun,” Fiori said.