Too Soon to Lionize Tiger

Tiger is not the greatest golfer yet and the road to that glorious destination resort has frightful twists and turns.

As we anticipate the final two rounds tomorrow and Sunday of arguably golf's premier tournament, the Masters, let's put this Tiger Woods mania/nonsense/craziness/hyperbole/stupidity/adoration - pick your descriptive - in unvarnished perspective.

He's a good golfer, often very good, occasionally great. He is not the greatest golfer yet nor even close to it and the road to that glorious destination resort has frightful twists and turns.

The facts:

1. Woods has plenty of downside, most notably that he is losing his mystique. Like the schoolyard bully who seems invincible until somebody whales the stuffing out of him, so it is with Woods. In his last six competitive rounds, he hasn't broken par. His driver can betray him, too; he's 58th on the tour this year in accuracy.

2. He's not playing especially well - that is, befitting what we expect of this legend in process. Woods has no PGA Tour wins this year, has been second twice and third once. His last victory was the Western Open in July. No chopped liver here. It's just that we don't want our legends to be losers.

3. A problem Woods needs to get a handle on is that he is becoming so overrun by financial involvements that his golf sometimes suffers. Woods should visit with Greg Norman who makes huge bucks in a panoply of deals - but has never won the Masters. Golf for Norman too often has been an afterthought. Afterthoughts don't win Masters.

4. Woods has some terrific competition, so terrific that the truth is a number of players are playing better or at least as well as he is. Among them, rattle-proof Ernie Els, consistently good David Duval, talent-overloaded Justin Leonard. During this time when Woods won one tournament, Duval won four, Els and Leonard captured three each.

5. Woods also is fighting enormous expectation pressure. Jack Nicklaus, who won six Masters, says he thinks Woods could win 10. Easy, Jack. On the way to 10 wins, the most important number is 2. "I have internal pressure," says Woods. And let's remember he followed up his Masters win last year by finishing 19th in the US Open, 24th in the British Open, and tied for 31st in the PGA. Mortality is rearing its ugly head.

6. Woods has displayed a temper, seldom an asset in a cerebral game like golf.

7. He's black, but that issue should be moot by now. But race doesn't have jack squat to do with all this. Augusta National Golf Club does scream and yell old-time South, which includes all the baggage. But Woods's color has nothing to do with who slips into the green jacket late Sunday afternoon. That ship has sailed. It's all about long and straight drives, finely tuned approaches, and velvet-hands putting. If you can do all this with aplomb, you, too, will be invited to the Masters. Even if you're white.

8. Woods putts the notoriously slick Augusta greens better than anyone. Proof: Last year, he had not a single three-putt green on a course that hands them out wholesale. Yet, overall this year on the tour, he is 86th in putting.

9. Woods is wondrous, but nowhere near a number of idols, including Nicklaus and certainly not Palmer. Arnie created golf as we know it. He won 60 tour events; he won four Masters in seven years. All Woods has done in the Masters is tie for 41st, miss the cut - and win once, albeit with an incomprehensible 18 under par. Now Woods must back up breathtaking promise with exhilarating - and consistent - performance.

Palmer and Nicklaus aside, it is astounding that after the first nine holes at the Masters last year, Woods went on to play his next 197 holes in 55 under par. For 10 straight rounds he was in the 60s. The week after last year's Masters when Woods was perfectly positioned for an emotional crash, he shot 17 under par to win the Byron Nelson.

10. People talk about Tiger-proofing Augusta National. That's not necessary. Remember there was all that chatter after the '97 Masters that the PGA Tour was going to become nothing but a contest for second place, Woods having taken up permanent residence in the penthouse. That proved to be nonsense.

Indeed, Woods is sixth in money winning so far this year, behind Billy Mayfair and narrowly ahead of Glen Day. Who? And never forget that plenty of stars have won the Masters once and no more, including Raymond Floyd.

Perspective is important when emotions threaten to take over.

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is looneyd@csps.com

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