A Tiger In The Grass

The prodigies of sport know who they are. They know when it's their time. How or why doesn't matter. They just know. Michael Jordan, callow, serene, lofting the shot that won the NCAA championship at 19. Boris Becker, aloof, haughty, diving into the turf and capturing Wimbledon at 17. Forrest Gump, idiot savant, opening his first box of chocolates. Somehow they all know. And so, now: Tiger.

Already he is blessed with first-name recognition, the signature of legends - Pele, Magic, Elvis-because, in his own sphere, at least, he is one. The game of golf has been waiting for Eldrick (Tiger) Woods since birth. The game's, not his. When he tees off in the first round of the Masters at Augusta, Ga., this Thursday as the most acclaimed teenage player in history--having surpassed the amateur records of both Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus-his blissfully sweet swing, mature countenance and sheer, outrageous ability will confirm the arrival, finally, of golf's first black superstar.

Barely 19, Woods has talent, grace and style. His manner- a song combination of politesse and arrogance-should serve him well at Augusta National, where sporting drama and magnolia scented beauty tend to overwhelm the petty autocracy and racist hypocrisy whispering through the pines. Woods will be only the fourth black American to play the Masters in 61 years.

Golf Digest rates his chance to win at 200 to 1. "They're crazy. More like 500,000 to 1 Woods recently told Sports Illustrated. Ah, but that was the politesse, a blatantly false modesty. "Can I do well?" the Stanford freshman repeated a NEWSWEEK question last week while warming up for a college tournament. "Doing well is winning. To walk where Jones and Nicklaus walked, that will be daunting. But I'm not afraid of the Masters. I've never been afraid of anything. I'm going down there to win," he fairly snarled, Tiger doing a tiger.

Augusta's wide-open fair-ways and sparse rough may render Woods's only vulnerability - wildness off the tee - meaningless. He strikes the ball to impossible distance and possesses a marvelous creativity of shot. His mid-irons, short game and putting are routinely brilliant; the kid, Ballesteros-like, can get the ball up and down from a garbage can. So pumped up for the Masters, he has been practicing for its lickety-split greens by putting across the basketball floor of Stanford's Maples Pavilion. Woods will be, as they say, in the house.

For good measure, Tiger's instructor, the acclaimed Butch Harmon, gives Woods "the great player's chance on a great golf course. I don't care how young he is. Tiger already has [Greg] Palmer, he's absolutely fearless. We have a saying: Tiger carries his (testicles) around in a wheelbarrow. Col. Earl Woods, has another saying: "I wouldn't bet against Tiger doing anything, any time."

In fact, before he finished high school in Cypress, Calif, Woods had done just about everything a nonprofessional could do in golf. On national TV he upstaged Bob Hope in a putting exbibition at the age of 2. He shot a score of 48 for nine holes at the age of 3. He was undefeated in more than 30 southern California junior tournaments at 11.

As a teen, Woods played with every golfing deity from Sam Snead to Nicklaus and Norman, and in pro tournaments from Texas to Florida to New York. He is the youngest (16 years. two months) to play in a PGA tournament, the '92 L.A. Open: the first to win in three U. S. junior titles one on the 18th hole, the other two on an extra 19th; the first to win both the U.S. Junior and the U.S. Amateur; the youngest to win the Amateur; and, of course, the only black Amateur champion.

The great Byron Nelson saw Woods a couple of years ago and couldn't wait to get to a phone. Nelson called his ward, the great Tom Watson. "I've seen Ben [Hogan] and Jack and you. I've seen 'em all," said Nelson. "Tom, this young fellow has no weakness."

Woods would be immersed in his third-quarter studies back in Palo Alto rather than wallowing in links history in Georgia were it not for his dramatic comeback performance at the U S. Amateur last August. Contested -amid the lagoons and railroad ties of the Tournament Players' course at PGA headquarters in Ponte Vedra, Fla., the amateur was lit up by the theatrics of this Tiger, burning bright. On the first day of qualifying Woods shot an astounding 65. In the third round of' match play he came from three holes down with five to play to beat a former champion, Buddy Alexander. In the final round he came from six holes down. then four down at the lunch break of' the 36-hole match, to tie Oklahoma State's Trip Kuehne.

On the TPC's 17th - the stadium course's postcard par three, 139 yards to an island green Woods studied the wind and changed clubs, fueling the suspense. Then he cut a pitching wedge shot that landed on the fringe barely three feet from the water. After another dramatic pause, the straw-hatted Woods calmly curled in the 14-foot Putt and then fist-punched the air. His triumph was the greatest comeback in the 99 vears of the Amateur.

It was the elder Woods, 63, a former Green Beret with two tours in Vietnam, who named his son in tribute to a South Vietnamese soldier with the same nickname who saved his life from sniper fire. It was the father who bestowed him with athletic genes -Earl was a catcher, the first black baseball player at Kansas State. it was the father who found golf late (at 42) and turned himself into a one-handicap. Then he made sure his son found golf early (at 18 months): He wanted to give Tiger a game for a lifetime." Earl taught Tiger all about the kid's "missions" he "debriefed" him after tournament rounds; he filled his inquisitive mind with Subliminal tapes to make him "mentally tough."

Earl even had sports psychologist, navy Capt.Jay Brunza, hypnotize him - at l3 so that Tiger could "delve into his subconscious." learn to blot out distractions on the golf course and "focus." All of' this presupposes a nether-worldly, computerized automaton, a one-dimensional, sociopathic, pastel-clad contract killer.

"But, hey, I had a normal childhood," says Woods. "I did the same things every kid did. I studied and went to the mall. I was addicted to TV wrestling, rap music and "The Simpsons." I got into trouble and got out of it. I loved my parents and obeyed what they told me. The only difference is I can sometimes hit a little ball into a hole in less strokes than some other people. So I have to do media."

In combating the oppressive crush of notoriety since he was in swaddling clothes, Tiger has developed a certain coldness around strangers, a hard-edged wariness. His voice is high-pitched, Tysonish; his language is spiced with four-letter barracks material -surprising from such a fresh, innocent face. Absent his Stanford ball cap, Woods appears to be a freshman in high school, not college, albeit in total control: ego, manners and temperament as impeccable as his tempo.

For that, his father credits his mother, Kultida ("Tida' for short), a native of Thailand whom Earl met while based in Bangkok. Earl has three grown children and three grandchildren from a former marriage-young Tiger is, in fact, Uncle Tiger. But he is Tida's "one and only baby," she says. "I don't want the one and only to grow up spoiled. So I sit him down by TV one day, watch John McEnroe. I tell Tiger, 'See that? Never that. I don't like that. I not have my reputation as parent ruined by that'." Once, after a bad shot in a junior tournament, Woods smashed his club on his bag.

Tida reported him to the tournament director and demanded her son be penalized two strokes. "Mom!" he said. "Shut up," she said. "Did club move? Did bag move? Who make bad shot? Whose fault? You want to hit something? Hit yourself in head!"

Likewise, golf should probably slap a restraining order on itself for labeling its Great Black Hope merely black. Actually, Tiger is part Thai, part Chinese, part Indian, part black. He writes "Asian" on the forms requesting ethnicity. "Actually, I'm 90 percent Oriental, more Thai than anything. I've gotten used to being 'the only one out there.' But this perception is just another example of the inequity of race in America," says Woods. Earl says "It's all in the language. 'Blacklists.' 'Blackball.' 'In the black.' It's all wrong. But don't get my wife started on this." Tida, walking a fair-way, whirls, angry. "Hah! To call Tiger black is to deny my existence. You know what my grandfather on mother's side is? Dutch! White! Hah!"

As the young Arthur Ashe was wont to do, Woods is reluctant to address the issue. "I'm only a role model because other people make me one," he says. Then, bored, he repeats the mantra: "I don't want to be the best black golfer. I want to be the best golfer, period."

Nobody believes Woods will live up to his avowed goal of staying at Stanford for four years, passing up the tour and the hundreds of millions of dollars awaiting him in the endorsement village. For now, Woods remains in thrall to his fellow Stanford frosh: actor Fred Savage of "The Wonder Years"; gymnast Dominique Dawes, a future Olympian, and his own brainy Larkin dorm mates. Why, another versatile freshman athlete has already accomplished more for the university than Woods possibly can: Kristin Folkl led the women's volleyball team to the national championship last fall and the women's basketball team to the Final Four last week.

"I'm not a celebrity at Stanford," Woods says. "Everybody's special. You have to be to get in here. So then nobody is. That's why I love the place."

And it shows as on one blustery afternoon at Half Moon Bay, to which the Cardinal golf team had driven an hour in their Stanford van. Once there, Woods totally ignored another legend in the golf shop-none other than Joe DiMaggio -to join his peers. The team includes Notah Begay, a Native-American; Will Yanagisawa, a Chinese-American; Casey Martin, who suffers from Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, which has shriveled his right leg, and Steve Burdick, a Bible-toting, devout Christian. Bristling with enough diversity for a presidential cabinet, this crew won the NCAA, championship last year-without Woods. Now when the newcomer dons his glasses, they call him "Urkel," after the goofy TV character, They make him carry the extra luggage on road trips. They even answer his naive, rookie-boy questions.

"How much is a letterman's jacket?" Woods asked that day. "It's free," snickered Martin. "But you got to order now or wait forever to get it."

The world can only stay tuned to see whether Tiger Woods will win the Masters, obliterate the records of Jones and Nicklaus or get his letterman's jacket first. That's a lot for anybody to carry in his wheelbarrow. But don't bet against the kid doing all of it. Anything, any time.

BOY WONDERS Jack Nicklaus is the greatest golfer of the modern era. At least as a youth, Tiger Woods is on a pace that could match him. TIGER WOODS AGE Introduced to golf 9 mos. Broke 50 (nine holes) 3 yrs. Hole in one 6 yrs. Broke 80 8 yrs. broke 70 12 yrs. U.S. Amateur victory 18 yrs. Masters appearance 19 yrs. JACK NICKLAUS AGE Introduced to golf 10 yrs. Broke 50 (nine holes) 10 yrs. Hole in one 16 yrs. Broke 80 12 yrs. Broke 70 13 yrs. U.S. Amateur victory 19 yrs. Masters appearance 20 yrs.