LA JOLLA, CALIF. — Despite the cover of pre-dawn darkness, ocean mist, and blue-black clothing, Tiger Woods can't escape ambush.
"We're live, sir," says the first of three news crews to thrust a microphone into Woods's path as he tees up for a pretournament warm-up. "Do you really think you can beat golf's biggest record?"
America loves a winning streak. Now, in the hero-starved post-Michael Jordan world, with the Sosa- McGwire home-run derby a mere echo, the hottest streak going is Woods's pursuit of golf's most-consecutive-wins title - a mark that's endured since 1945.
Yes, Woods has a way to go to crack the record of 11 victories, but that's almost beside the point. What matters is the pursuit itself, Woods's increasing dominance of the sport, and the fact that he continues to revolutionize not only the game, but also the entire golf world.
"Especially in this day and age, you can't beat everybody every week, which is what he is doing," says Joe Logan, a Philadelphia golf writer who has been following Woods on tour for seven years. "There is a quality of magic to it, and the whole world is responding."
In storybook fashion, Woods came from behind this week to tie one of the game's immortals - Ben Hogan - with six consecutive PGA victories, a mark held since 1948. As Round 2 of the Buick Invitational gets under way here today, the tournament will either advance the new streak or halt it in its tracks.
As all eyes once again fall on Woods, who first caught the sports world by storm when he brought a new power game into golf's pro ranks in 1996, what is most obvious is his matured, all-around game, augmented by a new arsenal of short shots that blows opponents away like the blast of a sand wedge.
"No other golfer could do what Tiger Woods is doing now. It's magnificent to behold," says Mr. Logan.
Capping a 3-1/2-year run in which Woods has won 17 tournaments and $12.5 million ($30,000 shy of the PGA record), he has snagged victory week after week, often from the jaws of seemingly certain defeat.
Now, with his assault on Byron Nelson's all-time record of 11 back-to-back wins, the hyperbole that accompanied Woods's debut is looking more and more, even to doubters, as unvarnished fact.
That response is both short term and long. Since Woods turned pro in 1996, the amount of prize money offered in PGA events has jumped from $70 million to $160 million. Sponsors are lining up with offers of more money, more tournaments.
"This is an astronomical increase in prize money, and it is a direct result of Woods coming into the game as a professional," says Sports Illustrated's Rick Lipsey. "If you look into the number of tournaments now put on TV, the ratings they get, and the number of people attending, it's all due to him."
That assessment is reflected in the number of media attending the Buick Invitational here - double that of last year - and the size of crowds (200,000 compared with about 140,000 last year).
"This is really just a garden-variety tournament, and I would not be here covering it if it weren't for the streak," says Scott Walker, a correspondent for ESPN. "There is a growing interest in golf in general and even a higher one when Woods is on a streak. For some reason, Americans seem to love the fact that people can express greatness by not failing to win over a long period. It produces a benchmark for all-time greatness, like DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak."
It's not just winning that has brought attention to Woods, but how he has won. He overcame a seven-stroke deficit with seven holes to play to win the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am on Monday. By crushing drives, hitting long and short irons with pinpoint control, and putting with dead-on concentration, he birdied the last four holes, and chipped in an eagle before that, catching leader Matt Gogel.
"I was amazed, to be quite honest," said Gogel after the match. "I will never be amazed anymore."
Woods himself says his game has progressed tremendously in the past couple of years, driven by the sheer pressure of competition.
"Oh, my goodness, it has changed a lot," he says in a post-Pro-AM match here. "Not only from my swing, from my short game, my putting, and strategy. I learned a lot of different shots, how to control shots, different techniques, things I've learned through experience, trial and error."
Working on club trajectories, the overall shape of his swing, the angle of the club faces, and speed of swing, Woods says, "it was just a matter of time before [my game] came together."
One such shot he has worked on is a short chip, in which backspin is placed on the ball to make it roll backwards after hitting the green. "These are shots that I have now, and ... that's something I'm very proud of. It hasn't been easy to go through, because [in] the changes to get to that point, there were some tough times."
The new, improved Tiger Woods is evident to all who watch.
"I can't believe the ease, coolness, and control he has," says spectator Robert Bernford, who had admired Woods on television before coming here to see him for the first time live. "He can play any club in his bag, from a power wood to a finesse iron to long and short putting with equal skill."
That kind of amazement is what continues to bring new ranks of players into the galleries and onto golf courses everywhere.
"It's like Tiger says, this game is going to look more and more like America, with all the diversity and ethnic groups he is bringing into the game," says Lloyd Young, an African-American teacher from San Diego who brought his son, Darius. Because of Woods, Mr. Young took up golf seven years ago and now feels that ethnic groups have greater acceptance on courses than in the past.
"My friends and I feel we can come out to the courses and play now without all the antagonism and suspicion that used to be there," says Young. "We owe that to Woods."
That observation has contributed directly to the amount of money that has come to golf, says Bill Harris, a professor of sports marketing at the University of Denver. "Here is a man with integrity who works hard, is disciplined, and got where he is despite underdog odds. That is the kind of person everyone wants associated with their product."
Because of this, Mr. Harris and other analysts expect that the Tiger Woods phenomenon will continue to snowball.
"He drives demand, which expands the market, which impacts the gate receipts and TV audiences, which expands the interest, which expands the market, and so on," says Harris. "Very few people ever come along with that kind of draw and capacity."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society