Tiger Woods, age 20, is more than Golf’s Mr. October; he is, all of a sudden, his game’s man for all seasons.
Just two months ago, Woods, then a student at Stanford University, won the U.S. Amateur tournament a record third straight time. With no more worlds to conquer on the play-for-no-pay circuit, he then turned his eyes to the professional tour, signing contracts worth an estimated $60 million with sporting goods giants Nike and Titleist.
This Tiger wasted little time showing his stripes to his elders. He entered seven tournaments and won two of them. Launching drive after drive carrying more than 300 yards, he has averaged well under 70 strokes per 18-hole round. And he has deposited $735,000 in purses into his bank account.
This past week, Woods has been where he belongs: Playing for glory, and big money, in the Professional Golf Association’s end-of-the-year Tour Championship competition at the rugged Southern Hills Course here.
So, who is this young man called Tiger? Last year, when he was playing in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, he issued a statement he hoped would “explain my heritage for the benefit of members of the media who may be seeing me play for the first time.
“I feel very fortunate, and equally proud, to be both African-American and Asian… . It does not make a difference to me. The bottom line is that I am an American… . and proud of it.”
His father, Earl Woods, is half African-American, one quarter Chinese, one quarter Native American. A Green Beret in Vietnam, he nicknamed his son “Tiger” to honor his combat partner, Lt. Colonel Nguyen (Tiger) Phong. Tiger’s mother, Kultida, who is known as Tida, met her husband in Bangkok. She is one half Thai, one quarter Chinese, and one quarter white.
They committed their Tiger to golf from the beginning. He played nine holes in under 50 strokes when he was three. He was hitting golf balls on the old Mike Douglas Show when he was four. He talked to his first agent when he was 13. He won the U.S. Junior Amateur a record three times, one of them at Wollaston GC in Milton, Mass. Then he won the prestigious U.S. Amateur crown three years running.
Tiger’s presence is mystical and intriguing beyond his ethnic heritage. He has attracted unprecedented galleries and media attention to the normally ignored autumn segment of the PGA Tour, all the while captivating the young and a minority following unknown to golf.
He spoke on Tuesday of the “positives I can use to influence kids in a positive way.” He talked of the “downsides in the scrutiny I sometimes receive.” He mentioned the approaches taken by the National Enquirer and Hard Copy “and stuff like that” and said “I think the media sometimes oversteps its boundary” when it intrudes on his privacy.
The last player to explode on the golfing landscape with an impact that remotely compares to what Tiger Woods has presented was Jack Nicklaus, who staged his coming-out party on the pro tour 34 years ago. Nicklaus was Nicklaus, Woods is Woods. He has attracted Bill Clinton’s attention, been mentioned by Michael Jordan as his hero, and, this month, gathered sporting headlines and magazine covers in the prime time of the World Series and college and professional football.
A juxtaposition at this week’s press conferences here painted that impact in a telling fashion.
Woods’ appearance on stage at 4:45 p.m. Tuesday was broadcast on television live locally, and ESPN cameras were in place as was a national media corps whose numbers were swelled by his presence. Phil Mickelson was yesterday’s star. He won the Northern Telecom Open in Tucson when he was at Arizona State in 1991, became the only player besides Nicklaus to win the NCAAs and U.S. Amateur in the same year, has won four times this year, is leading the money list, and is among the favorites to be PGA Player of the Year. There was a smattering of writers present, and no TV cameras.
There were the obvious comparisons, since Mickelson is just 26. “Obviously he had great credentials coming out, but a lot of the players felt that he hadn’t proven himself at the PGA Tour level. He’s more than done that in a matter of seven weeks. It’s taken me a while to prove myself on this level, and it’s a constant proving process. It’s the same for Tiger Woods. It’s the old saying of ‘You’re only as good as your last performance.”’
Woods won his last performance, the Disney Tournament last weekend in Orlando, a city to which he has just moved from southern California.
Mickelson’s comments reflect the wide range of emotions that has greeted Tiger’s meteoric ascendancy. Envy is one, and so the fault-finders are out in force. Isn’t Woods arrogant? Didn’t he rudely skip out on the dinner in September where he was to be honored as the college player of the year? He stiffed those who paid $200 for a ticket, didn’t he? He said he wanted a rest, and bypassed the dinner and the PGA Tour’s Buick Challenge Tourney that same week. He won the following week in Las Vegas.
“I wrote a letter to all the people who were going to attend the banquet and apologized for what I did,” said Woods. “I know what I did was wrong, but I had to get out of there, too. The scrutiny I received from the media and people in general and playing a lot took its toll on me. I should’ve withdrawn from the tournament, but gone to the banquet. I think they understand that and we’re working out the Haskins Award right now.”
The presence of Tiger Woods in a tournament field proved a bonanza to post-Labor Day sponsors whose tournaments are lost in the glare of the autumn sports spotlight. Golf is usually buried in agate in the newspapers, except when a tournament is in the immediate area. They had to print extra tickets at the Quad City Classic (Moline, Bettendorf, Davenport, Rock Island) for the weekend, and they sold out the merchandise at the B.C. Open in Endicott, N.Y.
Envy? Even the pros are recognizing that he’s been good for the game and their tour. “He’s created interest … and that’s kept corporate America interested,” said Payne Stewart, who chased Woods to the wire in Orlando. “Somebody overheard somebody in the locker room saying he hasn’t even shot his A game yet,” said Mark Brooks on Wednesday. “If he’s got an A game that he hasn’t shown yet, then we’re probably all in trouble.”
There are already five Tiger Woods books in the works. There is a $2.2 million arrangement with Warner Books for an autobiography/instructional book with an author to be named. Earl has a book with Golf World senior writer Pete McDaniel. There’s a second instructional book on the table, and one by John Stege of the Orange County Times. The fifth is an unauthorized version by Tim Rosaforte of Sports Illustrated entitled: “Tiger Woods. The Making of a Champion,” due out in late January.
There is “Team Tiger.” Earl is the team leader. Golf professional Butch Harmon is the swing guru. Jay Brunza is the sports psychologist. They’ve been in place for some time. There is the stated belief that Woods will win every time he tees it up. Arrogance? “It’s my approach to every tournament,” said Woods, “and I’m not going to change that.”
There was the Nike ad that rubbed some people the wrong way. The ads came out the week he turned professional. There was a reference to courses he still can’t play because “of the color of my skin.” The knockout punch was: “I’m told I’m not ready for you. Are you ready for me?” Woods liked the ads, even though he has never been an outspoken advocate of minority rights, preferring to let his actions speak instead of his words. They speak volumes.
When Woods hurt his wrist at last year’s Open at Shinnecock Hills and didn’t qualify for the last two rounds, he still fulfilled an obligation to give an inner-city clinic across Long Island Sound in Connecticut. And he gave one at Boston’s course at Franklin Park as a teenager. “I thought if I kept progressing in golf and my game and did really well, I could help bring more minorities into the game,” Woods said Tuesday. “I could make it more diverse.
“I thought that would be my biggest impact. It has been and it will continue to be. But it’s also the impact on the kids. That’s something I love to do. I love doing clinics. I love helping them out. I think that’s the biggest impact I’ve made so far. I’m telling you, just look at my galleries and you’ll see the difference.”
Finally, there are his prodigious drives off the tee. His first tee shot as a pro was right down the middle, 368 yards in length. Before Woods teed off in the opening round of the Tour Championship, he was paired with Rhode Islander Brad Faxon, a fan who, like the rest of the golfing world, is awed by Tiger’s length.
“I’ll be hitting second a lot,” he said.
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