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With Comeback, Tiger Puts U.S. Title in Tank : Golf: Woods, 18, makes up six-hole deficit and becomes youngest to win national amateur championship.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Caution wasn’t a consideration as Tiger Woods of Cypress stepped to the 17th tee Sunday afternoon with the 94th U.S. Amateur on the line.

The pin on the Stadium Course’s island green was tucked back-right, a Sunday pin placement from which the most seasoned professionals have shied during the Players Championship.

But Woods, with 18-year-old nerves, took dead aim at the pin and the championship.

In his bid to become the youngest champion in tournament history, Woods already had made up a six-hole deficit in the 36-hole final against Trip Kuehne of McKinney, Tex., with some brilliant shot-making, finally drawing even on the 34th hole with a birdie. This wasn’t the time to back off.

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Choosing a wedge for his tee shot from 139 yards, he hit a high soft cut that hung delicately in the quartering right-to-left wind. The ball one-hopped the sliver of land between the pin and bulkhead and clung to the fringe--two feet from the water and 14 feet from the hole.

Woods then drained the right-to-left putt for birdie, taking his first lead of the day. One last par at 18 to Kuehne’s bogey finalized Woods’ historic 2-up victory, also believed to be the largest comeback in U.S. Amateur history.

Not even Jack Nicklaus was able to win this event at 18. The Golden Bear had to wait until he was 19.

Woods earns spots in the 1995 U.S. and British Opens to go with his Masters invitation that he earned as a finalist.

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“This feels great,” he said. “I had to play some of the best golf of my career. Being the youngest champion hasn’t set in yet. It’s a weird feeling to win like this. The only time I felt I had won was when I hugged my father (on the 18th green).”

Among those watching in Orange County was Don Crosby, who coaches the Western High School team that Woods has played with for the last four years.

“Was that exciting or what?” Crosby said. “It was nerve-wracking. I felt that if he was in a 36-hole final, there aren’t too many people that could beat him the way he is playing right now. It was a quite a thrill.”

Woods battled back from a 5-hole afternoon deficit by playing the last 12 holes four under par. From holes 7 through 11, Woods trimmed Kuehne’s lead by four to 1-up with two birdies to two Kuehne bogeys.

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And looking back to the morning round, he was 6-down through 13 holes and 4-down through 18, thanks to Kuehne’s brilliant 6-under 66.

“You’ve got to keep positive,” said Woods, now 19-1 in match play this summer. “When I won the 9th hole (in the afternoon round with a par) to get to 3-down, I figured I had a shot if I shot three or four under on the back.”

He shot three under, completing an afternoon round of 68 to Kuehne’s 74.

“I feel best about coming back from 6-down and hanging in there,” said Woods, who graduated from Western in June and will attend Stanford this fall. “I knew I could if I got into a groove. I just needed to dig deep and do it.”

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With the victory, Woods becomes the first player in history to win championships in the U.S. Junior Amateur and U.S. Amateur and the third to win a U.S. Golf Assn. title four consecutive years, joining Bobby Jones and Carolyn Cudone. This follows his three consecutive Junior Amateur titles.

Kuehne, meanwhile, was left to reflect on the enormous disappointment of letting the prestigious title slip away.

“All you can ask for is an opportunity, and I had one,” said Kuehne, 22, an Oklahoma State junior in a wavering voice. “I played super golf. It’s hard to put into words how proud I am of myself and how disappointed I am that I did not come out on top. I had ample opportunities, but Tiger displayed why he is the champion he is with his recovery shots to keep the pressure on.”

It took remarkable skill and, in spots, remarkable luck for Woods to overcome Kuehne. Living up to his name, Tiger played out of the woods a number of times Sunday. He hit only 13 of 28 fairways and missed six of seven at one stretch before hitting the 18th with a two-iron.

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“I’ve grown up in the trees,” Woods joked. “I’ve been so wild for so long. I play out of them all the damn time. When you’re able to scramble, that drains an opponent. I had to put pressure on him, because a good player isn’t going to give you anything.”

Kuehne tipped his hat to the shots Woods made.

“If you hit into the trees, you’ve got to be lucky to have a shot,” Kuehne said. “If you have the shot, you need the skill to make the shot. The kid shot a lotta, lotta, lotta golf game today getting out of those situations to get to the green and cash in.”

Western High teammate Bryon Bell, who has caddied for Woods in two tournaments this summer and was watching on television this time, could appreciate the combination of luck and guts Woods showed on No. 17, when he went for the pin and narrowly avoided the water.

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“He was a little lucky but he showed courage in going for the pin,” Bell said. “He had to make a birdie. Even if he didn’t win it still would have showed what a good player he is.”

Another player pulling for Woods from home was Saddleback College golf Coach Bill Cunerty, who was two groups behind Woods at the U.S. Amateur qualifying tournament earlier this summer.

“He’s an awfully polished young man,” Cunerty said. “He has an incredible imagination. Halfway through the round today, his name should have been ‘In the Woods’. He hit some bad shots, but if there was a window he found it and a way to get the ball on the green. He makes the game look easier than it is.

“You can’t make pars and beat him. In match play his standard is birdie. He’s as normal as a guy can be who is probably the best 18-year-old player in the world.”

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Times staff writer Steve Kresal contributed to this story.


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