Tiger Woods did not look like a legend-in-the-making when he arrived at a pro-am tournament in Orlando, Fla., last month. He looked like any other 21-year-old show-
ing up for work before 8 a.m.—drowsy and a little disoriented. Wiping the sleep from his eyes and stifling a yawn, he introduced himself to the four greying businessmen who were his playing partners in the fund-raising event, and he gave his head a little wake-up shake as the quintet lined up for a group portrait on the first tee. But Woods knows the celebrity drill. At the sound of “Say cheese,” he flashed the megawatt smile that has graced so many magazine covers in the past few months. And he acknowledged the swelling crowd with a wave before stepping up to hit his drive. Then, the slender sixfooter unleashed a soaring 3-wood shot that easily cleared the trees guarding the corner of the dogleg and landed in the fairway 295 yards away. The crowd roared. “I just love to watch him swing the club,” gushed Peter Lee, a self-professed golf nut from White Plains, N.Y., who was among the admirers in the gallery. “That kid is something special.”
A person would have to have been locked in a media-proof box for the past eight months to not have heard of Tiger Woods. Since forgoing his final
two years of college to turn pro last August, the Cypress, Calif., native has: a) been the subject of four books; b) signed endorsement deals with golf equipment and apparel companies worth $80 million; c) been touted not only as golfs Great Black Hope, but—by his father—as a transcendent figure who will do nothing less than change the world.
The Woods story has even dominated the hype leading up to this week’s vaunted Masters, as if he
is already being fitted for the green jacket that goes to the winner.
CBS, the network televising the event, is using its one-hour Masters final-round preview to do a profile on him.
It is difficult to fathom that a 21-year-old who has played less than a year of professional golf could possibly warrant such attention.
But Woods did not happen overnight. He was golf’s Shirley Temple, a child star who at the age of 3 demonstrated his uncanny knack for hitting a ball on TV’s Mike Douglas Show. His was not a sideshow talent: at 15, he became the youngest-ever U.S. junior champion; at 16, he played his first PGA Tour event, the Nissan Los Angeles Open; and at 18, he became the youngest-ever U.S. amateur champ, beating opponents twice his age. Last summer, after winning his third straight U.S. amateur—another record— he opted to play for pay and won three of the first nine PGA Tour
events he entered. No one—not Arnold Palmer, not Jack Nicklaus— ever dominated so soon after turning pro.
Conquering golf is just the beginning for Woods, at least according to his father. Earl Woods, a 64-year-old former marine corps lieutenant-colonel, systematically set out to turn his toddler into the lord of the links, coaching young Tiger on handling everything from bunker shots to media barrages. Now, he boldly predicts his son will do more than any man in history—more than, say, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela—to change the course of humanity. That grandiose claim is based not only on Tiger’s golf prowess but also on his ethnicity—his father is AfricanAmerican, his mother, Kultida, is Thai—which Earl claims gives his son a global appeal. “The world will be a better place to live in because of his presence,” Woods Sr. said in an emotional speech at
a banquet honoring his son as America’s top college golfer in 1996.
The phenom himself deflects questions about his father’s vision. “My job is to play golf,” is all he says. On the golf course, it is apparent Woods has already changed the face of some galleries. Tournaments where he has played report huge increases in attendance over previous years, particularly among minorities. Woods has taken an active hand in that, inviting thousands of kids from inner-city neighborhoods to clinics at Tour sites. His Tiger Woods Foundation, which held its first-ever clinic at Disney World prior to the Bay Hill Invitational in Orlando, is devoted to helping underprivileged kids who might otherwise only see a golf course through a chain-link fence. “This is my way to help provide opportunities for them to play a sport they can play for their entire lives,” he said at Bay Hill. “You can learn a lot about life from golf, and to me that’s very important.”
Nike, the shoe and apparel company that signed Woods to a five-year, $40-million (U.S.) endorsement deal, has traded heavily on his multiracial background to extend the firm’s marketing reach to previously unexplored golf markets among minorities and in theTbird World. One ad has Tiger talking about the fact that many courses in America bar him from playing because of his skin color. But skeptics say minorities are held back by more than private-club discrimination; the fact is, golf equipment and greens fees are simply too expensive for most innercity kids. “People are thinking that he’s going to change who’s going to start playing golf,” says Robert Gamez, an eight-year Tour veteran. “I think that’s wrong.”
Woods can certainly attract a crowd. Until
Winning the Masters is just part of the Tiger Woods plan
three years ago, few fans ever knew or cared who was playing the U.S. amateur, yet TV coverage of the 36-hole final last year, in which Tiger came back from a five-hole deficit to win, gained a higher rating than the PGA Tour event being aired that same week. As a pro, he gives the stodgy old Tour an in with kids who wear their hats backwards. Tournament directors trip over themselves trying to get Woods to commit to their events. In that respect, Woods is not a pioneer in the mould of Charlie Sifford, who broke the color barrier in the late 1950s and forced the PGA Tour to formally lift its “Caucasian clause” in 1961. Instead, Woods has more in common with Arnold Palmer who, in the ’50s and ’60s, introduced an entirely new audience to golf. “Back then it was more of an elitist sport and, with the help of television, Arnold reached out to the
middle class,” says Alistair Johnson, Palmer’s manager. “Tiger is taking that even further.”
The weight of expectations might suffocate others his age, but college buddy Jerry Chang says Woods still finds time to unwind with close friends. “I know he misses college, misses the opportunities to stay up late drinking beer and just hanging out,” Chang says. “But he loves to play golf—absolutely loves it.” Because of his celebrity, however, Woods cannot go out to dinner or a club without being accosted by autograph hounds. “I can’t do a lot of things that normal people do,” he says. “But then, I’m able to do a lot more things that a lot of 21-year-olds can’t do.” Is that a fair trade-off? “It’s not bad, but then again, it could be better. Could be worse, too.” Woods was clearly upset last month by another price of fame— a cover story in the April issue of GQ magazine that was critical of his father and quoted Tiger making off-color jokes. He released a statement condemning “the motives of certain ambitious writers,” and added: “Thanks to the magazine and the writer for teaching me a lesson.”
For all the Woods hype, the media has not forgotten last year’s Masters mishap—the inexplicable collapse of Greg Norman during
the final round. Ranked No. 1 in the world, the Aussie squandered a six-shot lead in the tournament he covets more than any other, losing out to longtime rival Nick Faldo. This year, Woods will bear the pressure of the favorite’s role, despite the fact that his best finish in two previous Masters appearances was a tie for 41st in 1995. The longest driver on Tour and a deft putter, he ascribes past shortcomings at Augusta to the fact that he was still attending Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and could not fully concentrate on golf. The past few months, he has done little else but prepare for the Masters. “I have to keep playing, keep getting my game ready,” he said last month at Bay Hill, “so that when I get to Augusta, hopefully it will all be there— it’ll be at its peak.”
The straitjacket of fame will tighten if Woods wins this week, but he is not flinching. “He has an incredible burning desire to win,” says Tour veteran Mark O’Meara. “Ten years from now, I don’t know if that will be the same or not. Time will tell.” O’Meara’s unspoken suggestion is that, by then, Woods may be burned out. On the other hand, he may just have changed the world. Time will tell that, too. □
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