Tiger Woods’ 1996 ace ball up for auction

The golf ball used by Tiger Woods to record his first ace as a professional at the December 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open is up for auction.

Woods was aged 20 and he had turned pro four days after winning his third consecutive US Amateur title. He shot a seven tally (67-69-73-68), including his first hole-in-one as a professional on the 14th hole during the final round, to finish tied for 60th and earn $2,544.

Tiger Woods’ 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open Signed Ball Tiger Woods’ 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open Signed Ball (Credit: Heritage Auctions)

A spectator named Bob Gustin was fortunate enough to have the signed ball ricochet into his hand and since then it’s been in his possession. Well up until now as the golf ball is up for auction.

Gustin is the part-owner of a construction company in Wisconsin and had invited his fiancée (now wife), his sister and brother-in-law to use three of the four free tickets he had received to the tournament. The four set up their lawn chairs by the 14th green not expecting to witness Woods record his first professional ace.

A throng of fans — including Gustin’s brother-in-law, David Beck — begged Woods to throw the ball their way. Woods’ throw bounced off Beck’s hands and right into Gustin’s lap.

That ball, a Titleist 1, which Gustin got signed by Woods, has remained in his possession for the last 26 years, but will find a new home when it is sold in Heritage Auctions late next week.

The significance of the ball is clear even to the most casual sports fan. In addition to being arguably the greatest player who ever lived, Woods forever changed the game. He has won 82 PGA tournaments, tying him with Sam Snead for the most in Tour history. His fifteen major titles trail only Jack Nicklaus. His visibility as a golf prodigy, megawatt smile and otherworldly talent — including booming power off the tee — made him an instant superstar.

But in a career that has spanned 26 years and with a résumé that towers over that of virtually every other player ever to tee it up, the ball offered in this auction is one of just three that Woods buried in a single shot.

“It’s difficult to equate the significance of this ball to something in another sport,” says Chris Nerat, Sports Consignment Director at Heritage Auctions. “This is more than just someone hitting a home run or scoring a touchdown in his first game, because those things, while exceedingly difficult and impressive, happen far more frequently than a hole-in-one.”

“Then you have to add in the act that Tiger Woods arrived with huge pressure. He had been on TV as a kid, and had won so much as an amateur that everyone who knew anything about golf knew exactly who he was. This wasn’t like a first-round pick who should become a great player. He was tagged as a can’t-miss superstar. Maybe you could compare this to LeBron James, who came out of school with can’t-miss expectations, scoring 50 points in his debut or something like that. But there aren’t many parallels that can be drawn.”

“Tiger Woods had to be great … and fortunately for him, he exceeded all expectations,” Nerat said. “What he did at the Milwaukee Open — in his first professional tournament — is something that every golfer, professionals and amateurs alike, strive for…and the vast majority never achieve it in their lives.”

“That he did it in his first tournament was just magical, because it’s not like he crept up on anyone. He was worldwide news — more than any other player in the history of golf — before he played a single round as a pro. So to do something so incredibly difficult, while playing under that kind of scrutiny, is one of those things that is almost so unbelievable it doesn’t make sense.”

So, how much will the golf ball fetch? Well, a full tournament ticket from the same 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open last February sold for US$99,000 and the ball already sits at $31,000 with more than a week until the auction closes.