Monday, April 8, 2013

November 28, 1996, SPORTS


Can't See Trees for the Woods

    Golf is now a five-letter word. It's spelled "W-O-O-D-S."
    Tiger Woods is no longer merely an athlete. He's an industry.
    It's already beginning. The headline writers know where their readers are coming from. The headline reads: ‘Tiger Woods Finishes Fifth, Greg Norman Wins Australian Open.’
    And that's Greg Norman! Imagine if it had been some rinky-dink tour journeyman. He'd have been lucky to make paragraph eight.
    We haven't seen that kind of skewed headlining since the early days of Arnie's Army when the banner would proclaim ‘Palmer Bogeys 18. Unknown Wins Masters.’
    All across the country, editors didn't care who won a tournament if it wasn't Palmer or Nicklaus. Without them, the story hit the agate — along with ‘Fights Last Night’ and high school soccer scores.
    It's happening again. A tall, smiling kid with the charisma of a movie star, a smile like a sunrise, a swing as sweet as a banana split and the confidence of a riverboat gambler with his own deck has come along to rescue the game from the brink of anonymity, saved it from being won by people named Jones or foreigners whose handles you can't even pronounce.
    It was easy to believe there is no such person as Tiger Woods. They made him up, right? Everything about him is too perfect. They sent down to Central Casting and they came up with the right guy for the part. Best bit of casting since Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. It's John Wayne on horseback, as heartwarming as a Lassie movie. Beaver Cleaver with a two-iron.
    Tiger was the American Dream, perfect ethnically for the United States in the 21st century. The cavalry to the rescue. The guy in the white hat.
    He did everything right. He won three U.S. Amateurs. Only Bobby Jones had done that, winning four. He won two of the first seven tournaments he entered after turning pro. Nobody had ever done that. Or maybe ever will.
    He won his first pro tournament at 20. Nicklaus won his at 22. Palmer won his at 26. Hogan was 27.
    Americans loved it — Instant Legend. He wasn't going to have a career, he was going to have a ticker-tape parade. He was going to eagle life.
    Most people are allowed to slip into stardom, dip a toe in the water, test it, deal with it, maybe pick up a rookie-of-the-year award or so before they start getting measured for Halls of Fame. Tiger dived in headfirst off the high oard. The spotlight was on him before he got his first set of clubs. The microphones were under his chin as soon as he could talk, the cameras were trained on him by his first practice swing. The agents were on hand throwing truckloads of money at him, waving contracts as he came off the 18th tee.
    It was good for golf, good for TV. Was it good for Woods?
    I went out the other night to check this out on our newest national resource. I thought I better get a look before they put him up on Mt. Rushmore.
    He was at the family home in Cypress, had just come back from the Australian Open where he had upstaged Norman and the flower of Down Under golf. A spot in a Tiger Woods threesome is a good place for a guy on the lam to hide out. No one will notice him there.
    He came home to get in a little of Mom's cooking and Dad's advice (Tiger now lives in Florida), but, as usual, he was surrounded by the pomp and circumstance of his messianic existence.
    I was there running around with a notebook and pen, ABC's TV cameras were there to film him for the halftime show on ‘Monday Night Foodball’, Mom was trying to prepare him Thai delicacies, and Dad, Earl Woods, was trying to catch the football game. A neighbor was suddenly at the door with her four-year-old son in tow wondering if Tiger would mind posing for a picture with him. Tiger didn't mind, but Dad had to come up with the camera. This Is Your Lie, Tiger Woods.
    Everyone wants a piece of him these days. A tournament without Tiger is a non-event. And this weekend, at Rancho La Quinta golf course, he has turned a made-for-TV Skins game, ordinarily a "trash sport," into something as eagerly awaited as a U.S. Open playoff. This is because it will be Tiger matching tee shots with none other than John Daly, the ex-Golden Boy of the tour.
    Fans are expecting a golf version of Dempsey-Firpo. ABC expects to buck weekend football. "Hold that Tiger!" doesn't mean a goal-line stand anymore, it means Woods' shots.
    Tiger is taking it in stride. Tiger takes everything in stride. Tiger is almost nonchalant about his talent.
    Still, he's carrying the weight of all golf on his 20-year-old shoulders. Two of the greatest players in the game, Fred Couples and Tom Watson, will be almost straight men, sidekicks in Saturday and Sunday's drama.
    Given that kind of pressure, is burnout an option? His father, Earl, scoffs. "Tiger has been handling the media and publicity since he was two," he explains. "I taught him. I was the public information officer for the Army at Fort Hamilton in New York. And I told Tiger, 'Always tell the truth and just answer the question asked.' He's as at ease with the media as he is over a two-foot putt."
    What about when he finds out putts don't have to drop, balls slice or hood, or go out of bounds, or when he learns why they call bunkers "hazards:?
    What then?
    Tiger hoots.
    "Hey!" he says. "I was the wildest player off the tee you will ever see. I played some courses sideways. I had to invent trouble shots all the time!"
    Earl agrees: "You know why Tiger can handle adversity? Because when he goes bogey-bogey-double bogey, I laugh! I always have. He used to look at me and think, 'Well, it can't be the end of the world. Dad's laughing.' That's why he can go from double bogey to birdie, from 79 to 66."
    And that's why he can go up to the game of golf these days and say, "You're away!"

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