Diamond Rarely in The Rough

How a young man named Tiger Woods has transformed the game of golf

Under a canopy of blue sky, the Santa Rosa mountains that ring golf courses here look like pyramids and the perfect rows of palms could be a set out of Cleopatra.

Observing the multitudes of tournament goers that ring emerald-green fairways, an alien spacecraft might be convinced it had stumbled into some bizarre rite of kings. Amid the hubbub, the bewildered extraterrestrials might dispatch the following home:

"Have alighted on planet Earth. Their ruler is a young boy in a beak cap who whacks a dimpled, white stone with a long stick."

After watching the recent Skins Game in which three other top names in golf competed for $540,000 - among them Hall-of-Famer Tom Watson, two-time PGA winner John Daly, and Masters Champion Fred Couples - the aliens might continue:

"There are many others who whack the dimpled stone, but they appear to be only decoys. The earthlings come out of their dwellings mostly to follow the boy in the beak cap."

Soon, perhaps, even non-earthlings will know the name of the young phenom who is taking, if not the world, then at least the world of golf, by storm. It's usually heard in threes - "Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!" - and most often comes after the svelte swinger has plastered his projectile a third of a football field past the field and flashed his signature, Cheshire-cat grin.

On the heels of an unprecedented string of golf victories, including three straight US Amateur Championships and two professional tour wins out of his first seven, Tiger Woods has become both the youngest and most decorated newcomer to enter the sport.

"He's not just a promising young Tour pro anymore. He's an era," cooed Sports Illustrated after Tiger turned pro Aug. 28.

In the process, Woods is carrying the promise of remaking how others play the game - as well as who plays the game.

"He is bringing a whole new set of people to the golf course who have never been here before," says Jennifer Mills, anchor for cable-TV's 24-hour golf channel. She says because of his race - Thai, American Indian, African-American, Caucasian - he is opening a window on a white-dominated sports culture often tinged with clubbiness and exclusivity. "Kids of every race are dying to see him. They look up at what he's doing and for the first time feel, 'Hey, maybe I could do that.'"

If our alien visitors turned on the television, they would find added grist for their "decoy" theory: a ubiquitous Nike commercial in which kids of every race and age declare, "I am Tiger Woods." On public streets and shopping malls, they would find hats and T-shirts that proclaim "Tiger Rules."

The reason for such adulation is simple. Before deciding to forgo his senior year at Stanford University for the pro tour, Woods set a record with 18 consecutive match play victories. His US Amateur match play record of 20-2 is the best in history as is his USGA match play record of 42-3.

His elegant, fluid swing mesmerizes both fans and pros alike. It is consistent over a wide variety of shots from tee to green. At 6 ft. 2 in., 150 lbs., Woods also displays an unflappable temperament - one shaped from his youth by his father and, more recently, psychologists.

"There is not a flaw in his golf or his makeup," says Jack Nicklaus, arguably golf's greatest ever. "He has the finest, fundamentally sound golf swing I have ever seen."

Because of a wide stance, a higher club arc, and a delayed wrist cock, Woods is able to generate the fastest club-head speed on the pro tour. The technique allows him to outdrive even the biggest hitters, often by embarrassing amounts, with rarely an errant journey into the rough. Many pros say his technique will remake how an entire generation plays. "Tiger is changing the way the rest of us are training our bodies physically and mentally," says Curtis Strange, a former top tour player.

The son of Earl Woods, a Green Beret in Vietnam and former Kansas State football player, Tiger was raised almost from birth to be the world's best golfer. At six months, he was placed in a high chair in the garage to watch his father hit balls for hours. He was featured in Golf Digest at age 5 before winning a string of international junior events.

Such an amateur legacy, followed by quick wins on the pro tour, has already helped draw TV viewers away from perennial favorites such as college and NFL football. "We invited Tiger Woods to play the Skins Tournament because we felt he could possibly make it the biggest TV golf audience in history," says Barry Frank, co-creator of the Skins tournament.

Major sports companies are also betting on Tiger Woods. The $60-million in deals he signed with NIKE and Titleist make him one of the richest figures in sports before his 21st birthday. The companies say signing Woods is a deal made in heaven because he lacks the nasty temperament of some recent tennis stars but still maintains a competitive edge. There is also no danger, they say, of the drug problems that characterize others from basketball and football to weightlifting.

Woods does seem cut from a different bolt. Articulate and mild-mannered, he graduated from high school with a 3.79 grade point average. He was courted by Stanford University, which he attended for three years on a full scholarship. Like the best pros, Woods seems unfazed by pressure, rolling in nerve-testing 10-foot putts when he needs to.

"He's superexciting from the sports side of things," says Pam Adams, an African-American from Escondido, Calif., who brought her young son, Adam, to the Skins Game. "But he is also the wholesome, unblemished person with manners and integrity. He's a great example especially to young minorities who have all too few respectable heroes these days."

Woods is praised for his poise and politeness both on and off the course. Talking to reporters at the recent Skins Game here, he attributed his demeanor to a conscious effort to emulate basketball superstar Michael Jordan. "Michael always carried himself with class and dignity ... he dressed for the press and behaved elegantly," said Woods. "That is a true sign of a champion."

The admiration is mutual. Michael Jordan is a big fan of Woods. "[Tiger] has a lot of expectations placed on him already," Jordan said in a Monitor interview. "I wouldn't want to lay any more on him. But my prediction is that he is going to make a big statement in that profession."

The intensity of the spotlight may, in fact, be Woods's biggest challenge. He has already been chided by many for failing to appear at an awards dinner in October. He has written an open apology, but has made some early enemies.

Fame is exacting a price in other ways as well. "I cannot eat dinner out anywhere anymore," says Woods. "People come up to me with my mouth full and want my signature. It's rude, but some do it anyway."

Such inconveniences may be minor compared to the Pandora's box of race questions that will follow him his entire career. Nike has already been accused of trying to capitalize on him as a black athlete adding color to a sport that traditionally appeals to whites. Because of his mixed racial background, Woods says he finds the questions on the subject belittling and has urged the press to back off.

He has been the victim of written and verbal threats - including a mugging, at knifepoint, while at Stanford. Still, his ascendancy in golf may force a reassessment across sports.

The way the media have treated Woods is a "throwback to the racial classifications used in the old South," says Henry Yu, history professor at the University of California Los Angeles. "The sooner we see ourselves for the hybrids we are, the sooner we can end privileges and societal structures that rest on claims of racial purity."

For now, Woods prefers to focus on winning, period. Besides the hand-blistering time he spends on the range, Woods studies videos of great players from the past.

"They were great for a reason," he says. "I like to find out why they were great. I used to love to watch Tom Watson putt, Trevino hit little wedges, or Nicklaus hit long irons. I would watch how they did it and why. More important, I like to study their decisionmaking on the golf courses."

A Tiger Retrospective

Age 2 - Appeared on "Mike Douglas Show," putting with Bob Hope.

Age 3 - Shot score of 48 for nine holes on US Navy golf course.

Age 8 - Won first golf tournament.

Age 15 - Won US Junior National Championship, the youngest to do so, and seven other tournaments.

Age 17 - Won US Junior National Championship for unprecedented third time. Accepted scholarship at Stanford University, with a 3.79 grade-point average. Studied economics but later dropped out to turn pro.

Age 19 - Won US Amateur tournament for second time. Played in 1995 Masters in Augusta, Ga., placing 41st.

Age 20 - Won US Amateur tournament third straight time. Turned professional on Aug. 28, 1996. Signed $60 million in endorsement deals. Won two tournaments on the tour, the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational and 1996 Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic.

Top-Earning Athletes of 1996

The 40 athletes who earned the most in 1996, as estimated by Forbes magazine. The first figure includes salary, prize money, and incentive bonuses. Endorsements include licensing money and appearance fees. Income from side businesses and equity partnerships isn't counted.

Name/Sport Salary/Endorsements/Total

(Figures are in millions)

1. Mike Tyson, Boxing $75.0 $0.0 $75.0

2. Michael Jordan, Basketball 12.6 40.0 52.6

3. Michael Schumacher, Auto Racing 25.0 8.0 33.0

4. Shaquille O'Neal, Basketball 7.4 17.0 24.4

5. Emmitt Smith, Football 13.0 3.5 16.5

6. Evander Holyfield, Boxing 15.0 0.5 15.5

7. Andre Agassi, Tennis 2.2 13.0 15.2

8. Arnold Palmer, Golf 0.1 15.0 15.1

9. Dennis Rodman, Basketball 3.9 9.0 12.9

10. Patrick Ewing, Basketball 10.9 1.5 12.4

11. Cal Ripken Jr., Baseball 6.0 6.0 12.0

12. Roy Jones Jr., Boxing 12.0 0.0 12.0

13. Dan Marino, Football 9.2 2.5 11.7

14. Wayne Gretzky, Ice Hockey 6.0 5.5 11.5

15. Riddick Bowe, Boxing 11.5 0.0 11.5

16. Pete Sampras, Tennis 3.3 8.0 11.3

17. Oscar De La Hoya, Boxing 10.8 0.5 11.3

18. Grant Hill, Basketball 4.3 6.5 10.8

19. Ken Griffey Jr., Baseball 8.0 2.8 10.8

20. Dale Earnhardt, Auto Racing 2.5 8.0 10.5

21. David Robinson, Basketball 7.4 2.0 9.4

22. Hakeem Olajuwon, Basketball 6.8 2.5 9.3

23. Clyde Drexler, Basketball 8.9 0.3 9.2

24. Michael Chang, Tennis 2.5 6.5 9.0

25. Julio Cesar Chavez, Boxing 9.0 0.0 9.0

26. Tiger Woods, Golf 0.8* 8.0 8.8

27. John Elway, Football 6.8 2.0 8.8

28. Neil O'Donnell, Football 8.5 0.3 8.8

29. Steve Young, Football 4.5 4.0 8.5

30. Frank Thomas, Baseball 7.2 1.2 8.4

31. Mario Lemieux, Ice Hockey 7.5 0.8 8.3

32. Barry Bonds, Baseball 8.0 0.3 8.3

33. Jack Nicklaus, Golf 0.4 7.8 8.2

34. Damon Hill, Auto Racing 7.5 0.7 8.2

35. Troy Aikman, Football 4.9 3.2 8.1

36. George Foreman, Boxing 3.0 5.0 8.0

37. Charles Barkley, Basketball 4.5 3.5 8.0

38. Greg Norman, Golf 0.9 7.0 7.9

39. Cecil Fielder, Baseball 7.4 0.2 7.6

40. Gerhard Berger, Auto Racing 7.0 0.5 7.5

*Woods, a pro for just four months, counted two wins among the 11 PGA tournaments he entered. His almost $800,000 in earnings put him 24th on golf's money list for 1996.

Source: Associated Press

Rookie Years Of Greatest Names in Golf

Tiger Woods's first seven pro tournaments outstrip records of two legends of the links.

Jack Nicklaus, 1962

Tournament Finish

L.A. Open tie-50

San Diego Open tie-15

Bing Crosby tie-23

Lucky International tie-47

Palm Springs Golf Classic tie-32

Phoenix Open tie-2

New Orleans Open tie-17

Tiger Woods, 1996

Tournament Finish

Greater Milwaukee Open tie-60

Bell Canadian Open 11

Quad City Classic tie-5

BC Open tie-3

Las Vegas Invitational 1

LaCantera Texas Open 3

Walt Disney/Oldsmobile 1

Arnold Palmer, 1955

Tournament Finish

Phoenix Open tie-10

Tucson Open tie-44

Texas Open tie-6

Houston Open tie-22

Baton Rouge Open tie-41

St. Petersburg Open tie-18

Miami Beach Open tie-21

Source: The New York Times

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.