Cambria duffer Craig Cornell still believes there’s no better sound in the world than hearing Tiger Woods saying “Nice shot, Craig!”
Cornell was in Florida on Feb. 8, taking a private lesson from the legendary golfer.
The Cambria resident won that extremely rare opportunity after entering a contest in which Bridgestone Golf, www.golfballs.com and the National Golf Foundation were giving away a dozen golf balls every day from March 5 to July 31, 2018.
Instead of golf balls, Cornell won the grand prize in a separate but related contest, the lesson with Woods. The giveaway also included transportation for two to wherever Woods was going to be on the available date, plus a two-night hotel stay for both guests.
Cornell’s brother, Chris Cornell, accompanied him.
“I was in awe,” Craig Cornell recalled during a phone interview. “It was just unreal.”
He already knew he and Woods shared a friend, Rudy Duran, a PGA of America member since 1976, who currently is the director of golf instruction at the Morro Bay and Chalk Mountain golf courses.
Duran also was Woods’ first coach, teaching the wunderkind from age 4 to 10, and playing frequently with him until Woods was about 15.
The coach said in a phone interview from snowy Minnesota that Woods has played several times at Chalk Mountain in Atascadero, “and we kept his handicap there until he was 13 or 14.”
What was that handicap? Duran said, “I think it was a plus 3.5,” which means that Woods was so good even then that they had to add that much to his score when he played in a tournament event.
“Tiger and his dad used to wear Chalk Mountain hats,” Duran said, photos Cornell said he’s seen.
To honor that history, Cornell wore one of those logo caps, which the golfing legend recognized during the lesson. After he and Cornell chatted a bit about Chalk Mountain and Duran, the sports legend sent warm greetings to his longtime friend.
Cornell, the former owner of Bob & Jan’s Bottle Shop in Cambria, rates the difficulty of golf courses for the Northern California Golf Association. He represents Chalk Mountain Golf Course Men’s Club in Atascadero on the San Luis Obispo County Parks’ golf course advisory committee, and currently works part-time at the county’s Chalk Mountain and Morro Bay courses.
After Cornell got the news about winning the grand prize, he and his brother had to pass background checks. Then it literally took months to nail down a workable date and location when Tiger was available for the lesson.
Finally, the lesson date was set at the Medalist Club in Hobe Sound, Florida, Woods’ home course and a club “to which a lot of the pros belong,” Cornell said. But “I didn’t get excited until we had verification that we had the plane tickets.”
When the brothers arrived at the club that morning, they got the red-carpet treatment, even with a valet to take the golfer’s clubs. “I started changing my shoes,” Cornell said, and the valet said, “No, no, you can go into the clubhouse.”
There, Cornell prepared for the lesson in front of a locker labeled “President Bush.”
Officials suggested that Cornell warm up with the pro, and then a film crew mic’d him up, he said, because the lesson was being videotaped.
“Word spread throughout the place that Tiger was there,” Cornell said, “and soon there were about 25 people, all standing at the back of Tiger’s tees. He has his own tees there, and that’s where the lesson was.”
Woods had some suggestions during the approximately 40-minute lesson, Cornell said, such as “in my swing, he said I was getting my weight on the outside of my right foot, and he wanted it to be on the inside.
“He had me move the ball forward in my stance, which helped me stay inside the ball a little.
“I was hitting the ball really well,” Cornell said. “I think it was the adrenaline … then I went to the drives, hitting nice high ones. That’s when I heard the voice behind me saying, ‘Nice drive, Craig!’”
After the lesson ended, the brothers stayed to watch Woods warm up and test a new ball for Bridgestone execs. Bridgestone even gave the Cambrian two dozen golf balls after the lesson.
Later, the Cornells dined at Woods’ flagship restaurant, The Woods Jupiter, an upscale sports bar in the Wyndam Grand Jupiter, where the brothers were staying.
They stayed there an extra night so they could play a round the next day at the Frenchmen’s Creek Golf Course in Palm Beach. They were still so exhilarated by their experiences that Cornell doesn’t even remember what his score was.
Are they still excited about it all? You bet. “Everywhere we went,” the usually reserved winning golfer said, “my brother would start telling people about it.”