When Tiger Woods stepped into the cauldron of his first senior tour event at the tender age of 16 there were plenty of raised eyebrows. And they have been raised ever since 1992 as Woods has set out on his one-man domination of a sport.
However, tomorrow New Zealand's Jae An will break a record that Woods has no chance of ever emulating. At 13 years of age, An will become the youngest male ever to play in a serious professional tournament.
The Korean-born schoolboy shot a course-record, six-under-par 65 on Monday at nearby Waikanae Golf Club to earn one of the last 18 qualifying positions in the field of 144 for the New Zealand Open. The irony is that Woods – being paid a reported £1.4m in appearance money – is also in the field at Paraparaumu Beach, lining up alongside an amateur fresh into his teenage years who was just eight when Woods won his first major – the Masters – in 1997.
Indeed, An's first taste of big-tournament golf will certainly feel like a major. Yesterday around 3,000 turned up to watch Woods practice, an attendance that would rival any final-round crowd at most Australasian PGA Tour events. The world No 1, making his first appearance in New Zealand and ignoring security concerns over a cyanide threat made against the tournament, was amazed by the roar which greeted his four iron on the par three 10th.
"I didn't even think I hit it that well," Woods said . "I don't ever remember that happening, and I've never seen anything like it for a practice day."
Four hours after flying into New Zealand – an occasion that was broadcast live on national television – Woods added it to the 15 previous countries he has played golf in. Bantering with the crowd and joking with his caddie, Steve Williams, who grew up near the course, Woods seemed oblivious to the increased security – 10 to 12 plain clothes and uniformed police and security guards.
But the warm welcome was cooled later when about 30 people demonstrated against conditions for Nike employees in countries such as Bangladesh and Indonesia. Police pulled one protester away as Woods, who has a major endorsement contract with Nike, was on his way to a charity dinner.
The New Zealand Open promoters, however, were hoping that having Woods in the flesh would counter some of the pre-tournament criticism that his appearance fee forced ticket prices up.
An's participation has certainly added to the interest. The plus-one handicapper is a product of Rotorua Boys High, which won the World Schools Championship in England last year. He did not play in that tournament but was a member of the squad, captained by the individual world schoolboy champion, Sam Hunt, who is also the reigning New Zealand strokeplay champion and is playing here this week.
Despite his heroics, An is not the youngest person to qualify for a national open. That distinction belongs to the American Beverley Klass, who was just 10 when she made the 1967 US Women's Open field. Klass's effort was even more remarkable given that she reluctantly entered qualifying at the insistence of her father. And Morgan Pressel was 12 when she qualified for last year's US Women's Open in North Carolina.Reuse content