S UDDENLY, TIGER HEARD the voice of his father, Earl, high and hollow, sounding in his head. He didn’t know where it was coming from. Memory? Fear? Earl insists he can do this any-time—talk to his son from the other side of the course, or through a tele-vision set. Earl did it that day from his hotel room in Chicago, softly speaking to his son’s image on the screen: Tiger. This is a must-make putt. Trust your stroke. Tiger heard, trusted, sent the ball rolling. It dropped into history. That night at the victory party, Tiger smiled at Earl and said, “I heard you, Pop.”
Everything bends to him now. Parents, opponents, friends, interviewers, sponsors, TV networks—all hope he will pay them just a little more attention. Woods is 24 years old and the biggest, richest, most powerful athlete in his game. He has won 20 Tour events in his four years as a pro, gathered $45 million in endorsements and already set the record for career winnings with $19.2 million.
But to Woods those are mere numbers. He sets for himself a higher standard—he wants to be, simply, the greatest golfer of all time. And he rightly regards himself as the only bona-fide judge of his game. Who’s going to argue? Woods broke the tournament records for 72-hole score (270) and margin of victory (12 strokes) at the Masters in 1997 and won that PGA at Medinah, staying roughly even with Jack Nicklaus at the same point in their careers. This past June, 2000, he won the U.S. Open by a record-breaking 15-shot margin.
Everyone in pro golf has had to adjust to the fact that because Tiger rules, there are plenty of Tiger Rules. Tiger commits to an event only at the last minute. Ratings skyrocket whenever he plays. But few com-plain; purses have just about doubled in the last four years largely because of his soaring popularity.
Fat times always make it easier for subjects to bow their heads, but having his ring kissed has interested Woods far less than exercising superiority over his court. After several missteps following his leap onto the Tour in 1996, he has seized control of the career once steered by his father—the chain of command now begins and ends with Tiger—and purged nearly everyone from the original “Team Tiger. “ Woods has effected radical change in a sport desperately in need of it. Indeed, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem’s ambition is for golf “to become one of the premier mass sports, to draw in the casual fan and the young minority audience flocking to football and basketball.
No one is doing that better than Tiger Woods. With his personality and prowess, he delivers a crowd that has little knowledge of the game’s traditions. When Tiger plays, the TV audience rises considerably above the average for tournaments that he skips. Even tournaments in which he does not play have seen a surge in gate receipts and sponsorship revenues over the last two years. In Tiger Woods, America at the mill-ennium has found its embodiment. This is the age, after all, of 20-some-thing dot-commandos, of billionaires in T-shirts. Who better to represent our world than a Stanford-educated, multi-racial champion who, just when you thought he’d reached his peak, keeps getting better?
“People said he was long but too wild, and he’s become the best driver in the game,” says his swing coach, Butch Harmon. “They said he couldn’t control his short iron, said his wedge play wasn’t any good. Now they’re the strengths of his game. He’s a work in progress. Anything that’s a weakness, he turns into a strength.” It’s Woods’s ability to identify and eliminate any frailty that makes him so daunting an opponent. Behind the dazzling smile lies the ultimate killer app: Woods is the sporting equivalent of the iMac—a multi-colored (black, white, red and yellow) package with a cute nickname, state-of-the-art design and a Terminator software package that leaves the competition dazed and confused. It’s an approach that Tiger’s mother, Kultida, says she instilled in him. “I said, ‘Go after them, kill them,’” she says. “‘When you’re finished, now it’s sportsmanship. Before that, go for that throat. Don’t let your opponent up.’” He has climbed inside the skull of every other player. “When Tiger turned pro, he said, ‘I expect to win every time,’ and everybody was like, ‘Yeah, right, sure,’” says opponent Tom Lehman. “He’s made you realize he means it. So how does that affect me? It changes my mind- set. I’d better believe in myself under the gun, and I’d better expect to win.”
N OT ONLY HAS Woods’s power made par-fives obsolete, he is also nailing shots that no one else would even try. In the Andersen Consulting Match Play Championship, Woods muscled a second-shot six-iron out of deep rough, intentionally hooking it between two trees and sending it 221 yards onto the green. “Every time we turn around, he’s doing something that no one else can do,” said TV commentator Curtis Strange. No record seems out of Tiger’s reach Byron Nelson’s 11 consecutive tournament victories, Nicklaus’s 18 majors. And, though it has taken a while, Tiger Woods now has fame sussed out. His first years on Tour, he says, “were like somebody threw me into the fire and said, ‘Deal with it.’” His schedule was packed, he traveled to exhaustion, and he was the focus of every Tour stop. Today, Woods’s non-Tour schedule is pared to a minimum. He does a handful of clinics a year for kids. Having cleared distractions from his game, he has become less volatile on the course. He allows himself to play.
As Tiger began to understand the obligations that come with being professional golfer, his father gradually let him go. “He’s always there for guidance when asked,” Tiger says. “But he has never said, ‘You really need to do this.’ Now I do whatever I want to do.” Tiger is as happy as he has ever been. “I have a wonderful balance in my life,” he says. “I’ve come to an understanding of what I need, what I can and can’t do. I’ve learned what’s best for me.” True, he has his father’s voice ringing in his head. But this is his game now, and this is the man he has become.
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Magazine
April 3, 2000. (Pgs. 118-123)
Copyright @ 2000 by: TIME, Inc.
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