Tiger Woods is back at Innisbrook after a 21-year hiatus

Tiger Woods teamed with Kelli Kuehne in the 1996 JCPenney Classic. [Times files (1996)]
Tiger Woods teamed with Kelli Kuehne in the 1996 JCPenney Classic. [Times files (1996)]
Published March 5 2018
Updated March 5 2018

PALM HARBOR — This will be Tiger Woods' first appearance at the Valspar Championship, but it is not his first time playing a competitive round on Innisbrook's Copperhead Course. Woods first appeared in Tampa Bay in 1996, when he teamed with Kelli Kuehne in the JCPenney Classic.

The tournament was a mixed team event that paired an LPGA player with a PGA player. It was held in December and was usually one of the last tournaments of the season.

At that time, Woods was 20 years old and one year away from his historic 12-stroke win at the Masters, the first of 14 major championships he would win. Kuehne was a 19-year-old who had just turned professional two weeks earlier and had to get a special exemption to play with Woods that week.

"Part of it seems like just yesterday and part of it seems like so long ago," Kuehne said. "It was my first event as a pro and I was playing with Tiger."

Woods and Kuehne were friends growing up and Woods played amateur golf against her brothers, Trip and Hank. Woods had only been a pro for about four months but already had a PGA Tour win under his belt. Both were with Nike and IMG, so they thought it would be a fun week if they played together.

The duo did very well. They finished second in the tournament behind Mike Hulbert and Donna Andrews. They would not play in the tournament again, which turned into a PGA event in 2000. Woods has since won 79 PGA tour events, second all-time. Kuehne won once on the LPGA Tour, in 1999, before injuries forced her retirement in 2010.

"I was nervous, heck yeah I was nervous, are you kidding?," Kuehne said. "The Tiger phenomenon at that point was crazy. People were running just to see him and touch him. It was craziness. Everyone wanted to see him live. I remember it being very, very hectic."

Much like it will be this week.

Things have calmed down for Kuehne. She currently lives in the Dallas suburb of Argyle. She is married with an eight-year old daughter and 3-year-old son. She is a part-time golf instructor and also works as a consultant for Kerr Cellars, a wine label owned by LPGA player Christie Kerr.

Kuehne said she hasn't talked to Woods in person since about 2012, but she does stay in touch through mutual friends. She said she will make time to turn on the tournament and root on her friend.

"Of course I'll watch it," she said. "I remember the greens being small and fast and the fairways being real narrow and tree lined. I'm sure it hasn't changed."

Getting the Copperhead Tiger ready

How much difference will Woods make to this year's Valspar Championship? A tremendous amount.

Tournament officials are doing everything they can to accommodate crowds of perhaps 30,000 or more each day for the tournament, which starts on Thursday. There have been 10,000 extra parking spots added at two off course sites. There were 70 extra port-o-lets added when Rory McIlroy committed, then an extra 90 above that when Woods committed on Friday.

An eighth admission gate was added and 30 extra buses were hired to shuttle fans in and out. The stakes and ropes were altered on eight different holes for extra viewing. And a wooden platform next to the bridge on the 12th hole was added on Monday.

"This will be an elite event among the non-major tournaments this year," tournament director Tracy West said. "It could be in the top five attended tournaments aside from the majors. I expect there could be more than 150,000 here (for all four days)."

Early start

Fans wanting to see Tiger Woods play in Wednesday's Pro-Am will have to get up early. Woods will be the first player off at 6:50 a.m. on the first tee. Sergio Garcia will also tee off at 6:50 a.m. on the 10th tee. Also playing early is McIlroy, who starts at 7:10 a.m. on the first tee. For those who would rather sleep in, Jordan Spieth goes off at 11:50 p.m. on the first hole.

Tuesday

Pros begin trickling in Tuesday. Practice rounds are scheduled, but there are no formal tee times. There is a chance Woods will practice but there is no official time. Admission is free.

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