Master Class: Tiger Scores With Skill, Style, and Savvy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Even before Tiger Woods turned the golf world on its collective ear at this year's Masters, many in the media were pressing in on him. In Orlando, Fla., a little over a year ago, this reporter caught a glimpse of the demands already in place.

Woods, who was groomed for stardom since diaperhood, was attending the annual Sullivan Award dinner to honor the top amateur athletes in the United States. Gaining a private audience with Woods was not as easy as advertised. A long queue of reporters and VIPs made it a waiting game.

Finally, patience was rewarded with an exclusive interview - 10 minutes, take it or leave it.

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This was long before Woods won his third straight US Amateur title, or turned professional, or signed $60 million in endorsement deals, or began 1997 by winning the year's first tournament (the Mercedes Championship). And at the time, journalists really weren't prophesying that Woods, an African-Asian-American, would become the first minority winner of the Masters almost 50 years to the day after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line.

The conversation with Woods, whose father, a former Green Beret, decided his son would become a sporting version of the same, turned to school. Specifically, would Woods stay at Stanford University or drop out in order to begin a pro career?

Woods anticipated continuing his studies. He said he was confident of juggling his golf and academic demands during a math-heavy semester, light on paper-writing. This would be a relative snap, he seemed to say, demonstrating a self-assurance in his abilities far beyond the fairways.

Ben Crenshaw, the 1995 Masters champion, finished his round Sunday and then proceeded to admire Woods as much for his mental as physical capacities.

"I think his greatest asset might be his intelligence," said Crenshaw on-air. "Tiger plays to his strength and he plays with so much imagination."

Virtually everybody in Augusta, Ga., was awestruck by what Woods accomplished in his first "major" tournament as a professional.

Most of the greats have eventually won at the Augusta National Golf Club, but for a rookie pro to win there, and in such an overwhelming manner is the stuff of legend. He, in a sense, had a "Star Trek" tournament, boldly going where no golfer has gone before. As CBS commentator Bill Macatee put it, Woods chased "a perfection that has yet to be defined."

In toppling all sorts of tournament records, he leapfrogged the field, taking a 3-shot lead after two rounds and a startling 9-shot lead after Saturday's third round, this after carding an alarmingly high 40 during Thursday's first nine holes. By the time his final divot fell to earth Sunday afternoon, however, he had fearlessly stared down history to roll in a four-foot finishing putt that left him a record 12 shots ahead of every other golfer, including veteran Tom Kite, the distant runner-up.

Woods, at 21, usurped Spain's Seve Bellesteros as the youngest Masters champion by two years, but what makes his feat truly amazing is the way he dominated the field.

Even superlative rookies seldom produce a tour de force on the magnitude that Woods pulled out of his bag. It's as if he imagined a dream tournament, then set about producing it.

His father, Earl Woods, who was at Augusta along with Tiger's Thai mother, had told their son that Sunday would be his toughest challenge to date - a test of his concentration as the burgeoning golf world (Tiger's planet) watched. Despite his first bogeys since Thursday, he maintained incredible composure, coming as close, as he put it later, to playing a complete tournament with A-caliber golf as he's probably ever done.

"I've never seen anybody come in with so much publicity and outperform it," Jack Nicklaus said in a documentary on Woods that aired before Sunday's final-round telecast. Nicklaus and Ray Floyd had shared the Masters scoring record with 17-under-par 271 totals, yet Woods shaved a stroke from that mark.

In his recent autobiography, "Jack Nicklaus: My Story," Nicklaus calls Woods the most fundamentally sound player he's ever seen, and "a most pleasant and appealing young man."

Even before Woods pocketed $486,000 in Georgia, Nicklaus acknowledged that the game's longest hitter has become "awfully rich awfully fast." But if the new Masters champion can "retain his competitive hunger" and handle his fame, Nicklaus is convinced that "his long-term impact on the game could be awesome."

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