Where's Tiger? Follow the roar

When it comes to golf these days, it is all about Tiger, all of the time.

Every tournament, certainly including the tradition-drenched Masters unfolding these days in Augusta, Ga., has the same story line: The King and his Court.

All the wannabes flap around, acting like they, too, can play this game that the extraordinary writer John Feinstein dissects in one of his books, "A Good Walk Spoiled." Writes Feinstein, "Golf is addictive and aggravating."

However, if your name is Tiger and you need no last name, the game is addictive but only rarely aggravating.

Each tournament starts out on Tiger-watch. You know exactly where Tiger is at all times because your ears follow the roar. It is, almost routinely, a victory march ending in the expected coronation. It's always the lord and his subjects. Tiger is elegant while the others are the ugly ducklings, quacking in dismay.

Is this all good or bad?

Good. Very, very good. It's a thrilling phenomenon.

Oddly, since sports at root are all about competition, normally it takes good competition to make good sport. That was what was wrong with the NCAA basketball tournament won by Michigan State over Florida Monday night. When it got to the Final Four, neither the two semifinal games nor the title contest were competitive and none of the teams were giants. Poor sport.

Conversely, when Tiger - a giant competing grandly against the course - won the Masters in 1997 by a mammoth 12 strokes, it was one of the most fascinating moments in sport.

A Top 10 finish in any golf tournament is a signal accomplishment, given the level of talent of the players. In the last 11 tournaments, Tiger has been either first or second a whopping 10 times.

Tiger is the stuff of wonder and so we marvel.

He turned pro in 1996, and he's already No. 1 in career earnings ($14.5 million) among every golfer who has ever played professionally.

Jack Nicklaus ranks 47th; Arnold Palmer 164th. In seven tournaments this year, Tiger has won $3.2 million. Second is Hal Sutton who has played in nine events and won half as much.

The PGA computes rankings in 33 categories. Tiger is No. 1 in a stunning 14 of them - including money, scoring, and all-around.

The reason all of this is so riveting is that Tiger mesmerizes no matter what. It is possible that he'll miss the cut and not even be around through Sunday. Just because he has made the cut 46 consecutive times doesn't mean he won't fail the 47th.

And if he should disintegrate, the air will go out of the Masters just like it does out of every other tournament if the Tiger momentarily looks mortal and starts chasing his tail in futility.

Last year, Jose Maria Olazabal ended up winning the Masters. He's an appealing personality, a fine golfer - and everyone, save Olazabal and a few friends and relatives, was supremely disappointed it wasn't Tiger, who tied for 18th.

Tiger is the people's choice.

His competitors have to fight off their own surliness. Davis Love III, a top-flight performer although not close to Tiger on most days, grumbled prior to the Masters, "He hasn't won it yet."

Opponents can take heart from a few indicators. Early this year, Tiger finished 10th in an unofficial event after shooting a bumbling 76 in the final round.

Later on, he finished tied for 18th in a tournament. He's only 21st this year in driving accuracy so he could - could - blast himself into trouble. And he's 49th in putts per round, so there's a potential opening.

Tiger, however, is so dominant that while others are trying to improve their best shots, he's so good that his emphasis lately has been on making his bad shots not quite so bad. Keep in mind that his bad shots are pretty good. Tiger has always had awesome power but now he has matching finesse. It's a wondrous combination.

To keep himself striving, Tiger has put the achievements of Nicklaus in his sights. His goal: Surpass all of them. Nicklaus won six Masters, Tiger one; Nicklaus won 18 majors, Tiger two. No mountain is too high for a climber.

There is also appeal in watching someone do something that we know we can never do, even in our dreams. Example: In 1997, Tiger fired an 18-under-par at Augusta, lowest 72-hole score in the 65-year history of the course.

Win or lose, Tiger is a tale for the ages.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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