To understand what golf is now, don't watch Tiger Woods. Watch
who watches Tiger Woods. Young black women in tight jeans and
heels. Tour caddies, back out on the course after hauling a bag
18 holes. White arbitrageurs with cell phones. Giant groups of
fourth-graders, mimicking their first golf swings. Pasty golf
writers who haven't left the press tent since the days of Fat
Jack. Hispanic teens in Dallas Cowboys jerseys trying to find
their way around a golf course for the first time in their
lives. Bus drivers and CEOs and mothers with strollers catching
the wheels in the bunkers as they go.
History will do that. History will suck you into places you have
never been. Woods is making history almost daily. Last week at
Disney World in Orlando, the throngs following him turned every
tee box into the line at Space Mountain, and he gave them still
more history, winning for a cereal-spoon-dropping second time in
his first seven starts--the greatest professional debut in golf
history--and bankrolling his way to 23rd on the Tour's money
list and the pole position in this week's gaudy Tour
Championship at Southern Hills in Tulsa. The way things were
supposed to work, Tiger was to tee it up at the PGA Tour
Qualifying Tournament in December to try to earn his card. He
even sent in the $3,000 entry fee. He can void the check now.
From Tour school to Tour Championship in seven weeks. The kid's
a quick study.
They will show up in Tulsa, too, this tsunami of Tiger Tailers,
dipping their big toes into the game for the first time, hoping
to answer the question, Is this really happening? At the Walt
Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic, where Woods won another
$216,000 to get him to nearly three quarters of a million,
attendance tripled from the year before. For his seven-week
scorched-divot tour since he became a professional on Aug. 28,
tournament directors conservatively estimate that he has drawn
an extra 150,000 fans. And this is not Chicago and Los Angeles.
This is Coal Valley, Ill., and Endicott, N.Y. No wonder that
when Woods committed to play the Disney, the tournament director
jumped into a swimming pool.
Whoo-boy. Maybe those Nike ads had it right. Is golf ready for
this? Golf used to be four white guys sitting around a pinochle
table talking about their shaft flexes and deciding whether to
have the wilted lettuce soup. Now golf is Cindy Crawford sending
Woods a letter. A youngster who'd been promised a round of golf
with Woods was bouncing all around his Orlando home two weeks
ago, going, "When is Tiger coming? When is Tiger coming?" The
kid's name? Ken Griffey Jr.
Australian reporters are demanding a press conference the minute
Woods's feet touch Australian soil in November for the
Australian Open. At the Quad City Classic in Coal Valley, they
had to print up more tickets. Teens in Milwaukee screamed his
name so loud and for so long that he had to come to the window
and wave to get them to calm down. "It was like he was the
pope!" says Tiger's mom, Tida.
He's not the pope. More like a god. "I don't think we've had a
whole lot happen in what, 10 years?" says golf's last deity,
Jack Nicklaus. "I mean, some guys have come on and won a few
tournaments, but nobody has sustained and dominated. I think we
might have somebody now."
When was the last time a 20-year-old showed up and grabbed an
entire sport by the throat? The Disney was Woods's fifth
top-five finish in five starts. Not only has no rookie ever come
within a moon shot of doing that, but also no player has done it
since Curtis Strange 14 years ago. Woods is looking at the
possibility--if he finishes first or second in Tulsa this
week--of winning $1 million in eight events. It took Nicklaus
eight years to make that much.
What else? A scoring average as a pro that, at 67.89, would be
the lowest in Vardon Trophy history if Woods had enough rounds
to qualify, lower by almost a stroke than Greg Norman's record
68.81, set in 1994. Woods would also be this year's leader in
three other statistical categories: driving average (302.8, 14
yards better than John Daly's), birdies per round (4.68) and
eagle frequency (one every 55 holes). He has finished, in order,
60th, 11th, fifth, third, first (at Las Vegas), third and first,
and he goes to Tulsa to play the big boys as "the best player on
our Tour," says veteran Jay Haas.
Want to hear something scary? "I really haven't played my best
golf yet," Woods says. "I haven't even had a great putting week
Could it be that this remarkable streak is not a streak at all?
"Oh, god," says Peter Jacobsen, who would have loved to have had
one top-five this year. "If this is how he is every week, then
it's over. He's the greatest player in the history of the game."
Want to hear something scarier? Woods won while being sick all
week. Last Saturday night he did not look much like a god at all
but just a homesick kid praying for the Nyquil to kick in. He
had a sore throat, bags under his eyes and sneezes backed up and
holding. He was sprawled on rented furniture in a rented condo
next to the one he will move into soon, stuck with a courtesy
car out front because he hasn't had time to buy his own wheels
yet and is too young to rent. You think it's easy throttling an
entire sport before you're old enough to drink?
Take women, for instance. "Women don't seem that interested
because I'm so young," he has said. "Think about it. Most of the
women my age are in college."
Money. For a kid who has signed $60 million in endorsement
deals, won three quarters of a million playing and just signed a
$2.2 million book deal, why does he always have only three bucks
in his pocket? His agent, Hughes Norton, is fond of telling
him--usually while Norton is taking a couple of hundreds out of
his wallet and handing them to Woods--"For a rich guy, you sure
are poor." His mother keeps bailing him out too. "What kind of
damned millionaire are you?" she says.
Norton says he has gotten none of the money back, but we figure
Woods is good for it, what with a spring-loaded bomb of a swing
that may soon make the term par 5 obsolete. For Woods there are
no par-5s. At the 595-yard 14th on Saturday at Disney's Magnolia
Course, Woods still had 284 yards to go over trees and a
green-guarding lake. He cold starched a three-wood--over the
green. In his seven starts he has birdied 68 of the 128 par-5s
he has played, including 12 of 16 at the Disney.
It has been a kind of blister bliss for Woods's caddie, Mike
(Fluff) Cowan, who is having to pace off ponds and trees and
Haagen-Dazs stands that until now have never been in play in his
20 years on Tour. Last week Fluff may have become the first
caddie in history to utter this sentence: "It's 290 to clear
that bunker. I like three-wood."
"Man, you should have seen how Tiger was hitting it," Paul
Goydos was saying in the locker room last week after having to
play directly behind Woods and his moving city of fans. "You'd
have been humbled."
"C'mon," said John Cook. "What's so humbling?"
"How 'bout he reaches number 8 [614 yards] in two?"
"Now that," said Cook, O-mouthed, "is humbling."
In Tiger Woods 21st-Century Golf, all bets are off. At the
Disney nobody else had security guards. Woods had four. On a
Tour where top 125 gets you into all the tournaments you want
and a second home on the beach besides, Woods is turning up the
attitude. "There are a lot of guys out here who come into a
tournament thinking, Well, eight under will get me top 25.
That'll be all right," says Cook. "Now here comes this kid who's
ripping and shaking from the 1st tee."
What is so charming about this historic ride is the tournaments
where it has all played out--Milwaukee, Quad City, the Texas
Open, B.C.--the end-of-the-year-liquidation-sale events that
nobody enters unless he's hurting for his card or took a wrong
turn at Doral. But for this one magic stretch, these places were
the Rainbow Rooms. They will have to make do with that memory
for a good long while. Elvis will probably never play the club
Still, it's not as if Woods beat nothing but club pros on the
Tiger Tour. Of the Top 20 players on the Sony World Ranking, he
has beaten Ernie Els (No. 3), Fred Couples (5), Corey Pavin (8)
twice, Phil Mickelson (9), Davis Love III (10) twice, Mark
O'Meara (11), Vijay Singh (16), Loren Roberts (17), David Duval
(19) and Scott Hoch (20) twice. On Sunday at the Disney he
matched a rejuvenated Payne Stewart, who needed to win to make
Tulsa, birdie for birdie. Woods did him one better, firing a 66
to Stewart's 67 to win.
Is this the same kid whose best finish in a pro event as an
amateur was an underwhelming 22nd? "You guys don't understand,"
Woods says. "When I played in those tournaments, I was either in
high school or college. I'd get dumped into the toughest places
to play, and I usually was trying to study, get papers done and
everything else. I knew if I came out here and played every day,
I'd get into a rhythm, and I have."
But it's how he wins that's eerie. He seems to have a Psychic
Friends thing going about what exactly it will take to get the
job done. Last Friday morning, as he was having his cereal at
his rented breakfast table with his father, Earl Woods, he put
down the sports pages and made an announcement. "Pop," he said.
"Got to shoot 63 today. That's what it will take to get into it."
"So go do it," droned Earl, half awake.
The little condo they share in Orlando does not get the Golf
Channel, the only network that showed the Disney, so Earl heard
nothing more about the tournament until that afternoon when his
son got home from his new job. "Whaddya shoot?" said Pop, blandly.
"Sixty-three," said Sonny.
"Oh, my god," said Pop.
Hey, aren't kids supposed to have fun at Disney World?
Things are going so well for Woods these days that he wins
playoffs by default. His 21-under-par score of 267 (69-63-69-66)
was actually tied by fellow rookie Taylor Smith, but Smith was
disqualified because his split putter grips were not round.
Smith is about as far from Woods as he can be. He and his
pregnant wife, Nicole, rent a $450 apartment in Waycross, Ga.
When Smith was one shot out of the lead on the 8th hole, Nicole
was bouncing up and down saying, "We're going to buy a house
now. We are going to buy a house!" But at the turn the ruling
was made, and when Smith's appeal was denied after the round,
the house was gone and Nicole was in tears. "I'm going to find
something positive out of this," said Smith. "I just haven't
found it yet."
Woods is finding positives all around him, like in the new,
throbbing gallery he is inventing: school teachers and Little
League teams and whole black families like the McCorveys of
Merritt Island, Ga., the kind of family that golf never saw
except waiting outside the caddie tent. "They used to say this
was a white man's sport," says Carolyn McCorvey, a Lockheed
employee and mother of a six-year-old who's taking up the game.
"Well, not anymore. They used to say it was boring, too. But not
with all the money this young man is making."
Listen to how new the sounds are too.
"You go, T!" a young black man yelled at Woods on Sunday. "Take
care of bizness!"
There was this from two teenage African-American girls--a sight
seldom seen in pre-Woodsian golf--just after Tiger had ripped a
shot that sounded like a Scud taking off.
"And that ain't nothin' yet!" one said.
As Woods passed, they smiled at him and he smiled back.
"Lorrrrrd!" said the other. "He is just too cute!"
Woods understands what he is doing to the game. "To look out
here and see so many kids, I think that's wonderful," he says.
"They see someone they can relate to, me being so young. It's
not like Jack Nicklaus. It's really nice seeing more minorities
in the gallery. I think that's where the game should go and will
Woods seems as charged by the voltage from his enormous crowds
as everybody else. He will high-five kids, look fans in the eye
and actually respond "Thanks" when they holler out, "Kill 'em,
Tiger!" ("Tiger Woods just thanked me," said one high school boy
in hightops and a Charlotte Hornets jersey with his cap on
backward. "My year is made, dude!") Woods doesn't have Fluff
hand out unwanted balls at the end of a round; Woods throws them
to kids while he's playing. "I remember when I was a kid, I
always wanted to be a part of it," Woods says. "I always wanted
to be connected somehow."
Who doesn't? At the Disney a young black man was wandering
around with his buddies trying to follow Woods but looking lost.
Finally he discreetly approached a black cameraman. "Brother,"
he said, "can I ask you something?"
The cameraman leaned over the ropes to hear him. "Sure."
"Well," the young man said, "what do we do?"
He'll have an entire era to learn.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG COVER PHOTO Tiger! IN TWO MONTHS AS A PRO, HE HAS TRANSFORMED AN ENTIRE SPORT [Tiger Woods]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Over his last five events, Woods has been head and shoulders above any other player. [Tiger Woods]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Let 'er rip: In seven starts Woods has 12 eagles. Tour leader Kelly Gibson has 14 in 36 tournaments. [Tiger Woods]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Attendance tripled in Orlando thanks to Woods, who is drawing record crowds wherever he plays. [Tiger Woods in crowd]
COLOR PHOTO: BEN VAN HOOK Last Thursday, Tiger was happy to put some potassium in his tank. [Tiger Woods eating banana while talking to caddy]