"I'm going to make a prediction," Earl Woods said Sunday night,
as champagne both tingled and loosened his tongue. "Before he's
through, my son will win 14 major championships."
America's most prominent golf father clutched the Havemeyer
Trophy, from which he was drinking, and looked around the nearly
empty merchandise tent near the clubhouse of the Newport (R.I.)
Country Club. The handful of friends and autograph seekers
laughed and cheered. His son, 19-year-old Tiger Woods, smiled
too--but bashfully. It's embarrassing when Dad blurts out your
own secret thoughts.
Skeptics will complain that the Stanford sophomore has yet to
win his first major championship. But after last week's 95th
U.S. Amateur Championship, Earl Woods had every right to see his
son's future through rose-colored champagne glasses. On the same
Rhode Island layout where Charles Blair MacDonald won the first
Amateur in 1895, Tiger Woods became the ninth player to win
back-to-back Amateur championships and the first since Bobby
Jones to give the impression that he might win as many as he
enters. "To my son, Tiger," Earl Woods said, raising the trophy
with a stiff right arm. "One of the greatest golfers in the
history of the United States."
The father said it boldly. The son had said it already, two
hours earlier, with a lightning bolt--an eight-iron to within 18
inches of the cup on the 36th hole of his final match with
George (Buddy) Marucci, a luxury-car dealer from Berwyn, Pa.
With Marucci one down but on the green with a 20-foot birdie
putt, Woods hit the type of knockdown shot from 140 yards that
wasn't in his arsenal at last year's Amateur or earlier this
year in his first Masters. At Newport, his knockdown approach to
the 18th green flew right over the flag and spun back almost to
the cup--making a prophet of ESPN commentator Johnny Miller, who
had said as Tiger addressed the ball, "I wouldn't be surprised
if he knocks it a foot from the hole."
It didn't surprise anyone, really. Woods has won five USGA
championships, and, dating to the first of his three U.S. Junior
Amateurs in 1991, he is the first male since Jones to win a USGA
title in five consecutive years. If Woods doesn't turn
professional until after his expected graduation in 1998, he
could equal Jones's record of five U.S. Amateur titles. "Tiger
is the best athlete that this [level] of golf has seen," said
Marucci, whose consolation prize from a 2-up defeat was
selection with Woods to the U.S. Walker Cup team. "He's lean,
he's strong, his swing is marvelous. I couldn't see the ball
come off the club for the first 27 holes. It came off the club
Marucci, a four-time Pennsylvania amateur champion, lists the
club championships of prestigious Pine Valley and Seminole among
his accomplishments, but in 16 previous Amateurs he had
advanced past the second round just once. He had Woods 3 down
after 12 holes and 2 down after 19, but, despite three birdies
over a four-hole stretch later in the round, Marucci couldn't
hold off the prodigy. In the semifinals it was Mark Plummer, an
eight-time Maine Amateur and two-time New England Amateur
champion who took Woods to the 18th hole. Marucci and Plummer
are 43, and Woods attributed their near success to middle-age
cunning and superior scrambling skills. "They may hit it awry
occasionally," he said, "but they can get it up and down from
everywhere. Great putting can make up for a lot of sins."
Great shotmaking goes a long way too. Asked which Amateur title
meant more--the first, where he rallied from 6 down after 13
holes in the final against Trip Kuehne, or this one--Woods
replied immediately: "This one meant more because it showed how
far my game has come. That shot at 18--damn! That's the only shot
I could hit close, that half shot. I didn't have it last year, I
didn't have it at Augusta."
Playing the Scottish Open at Carnoustie and the British Open at
St. Andrews in July taught Woods that there was more to hitting
golf shots than hitting them full bore. Having a full complement
of shots is a prerequisite for playing Newport, a links-style
course whose swirling seaside winds shift more often than a
running back in a multiple-set of fense. And by the time he
arrived for the Amateur, Woods had learned how to control his
ball in the wind, how to hit a three-quarter draw to a back-left
pin, and how to whistle a low two-iron 265 yards--as he did off
the final tee on Sunday. But the knockdown shot was Woods's
knockout punch at Newport.
"When he plays with the Couples, the Normans, the Faldos, the
Prices, he marvels at the way they control the ball in the air,"
said his coach Butch Harmon. "After the British Open, he said,
'Butch, how far away am I? When will I be that good?' I said,
'You just have to keep working. You've got so much to learn.'"
Judging from his play in the Amateur, Woods is a quick study.
Marucci acknowledged that, shaking the youngster's hand as the
two approached the 18th green and Marucci saw Woods's ball just
behind the hole, close enough to kick in. "Like all the great
champions," said Jay Brunza, Woods's caddie and sports
psychologist of the past six years, "Tiger has the ability to
raise his game when he has to."
The kid also knows how to pop his father's emotional cork. As
they did last year in Florida, when Tiger became the youngest
Amateur champion ever, father and son indulged in a long,
tearful bear hug on the 18th green. A couple of hours later, as
Tiger calmly autographed posters for fans, the old man seemed
ready to anoint Jack Nicklaus as "the first Tiger Woods."
You had to forgive Earl. With 14 major championships practically
in the bag, a celebration was in order.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN The powerful Woods has gone to great lengths to make himself a more complete player. [Tiger Woods]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Woods's victory reduced his father (right) and Brunza to tears. [Earl Woods and Jay Brunza]