Wunderkind's destiny settled before it starts

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Technically, Tiger Woods is still strapped. His seven-digit endorsement deals are as yet unsigned, and his first paycheck as a professional golfer remains pending.

The phenom of the fairways arrived at the Greater Milwaukee Open rich in credit, but short of cash. He was obliged to borrow his $100 entry fee from his swing coach, Butch Henry.

''I haven't seen any check in the mail yet, so currently I'm still broke,'' Woods said Wednesday during a telephone press conference. ''A lot of people around me can attest to that. Last night we went out to dinner and they're telling me I'm a pro, so I should pick up the tab. I pulled out these $25 gift certificates I picked up at the course.''

Any moment now, Tiger Woods will have more spending money than he can shake a three-wood at. Nike and Titleist and competing club manufacturers are throwing dollars at him as if they were so much grass seed. They see him as guaranteed growth.

The networks regard Woods as stronger ratings, and the equipment-makers believe he will broaden their markets. Last April at Augusta National, Jack Nicklaus predicted Woods would win as many Masters titles as he and Arnold Palmer had between them. That total is 10.

This is a lot to ask of a 20-year-old kid before his first round as a professional golfer. With anyone else, it would seem utterly absurd. With Tiger Woods, you wonder.

High on pedestal

Last Sunday, in Cornelius, Ore., Woods completed his not-for-profit career with an unprecedented third consecutive U.S. Amateur championship. These followed three consecutive Junior Amateur championships. To find a more amazing apprenticeship, you would have to set the Wayback Machine in search of Mozart.

Woods is immediately the longest hitter on tour, and straighter than John Daly on his most direct day. His drives routinely reach 330 yards, and the length of his long irons invite incredulous laughter. With time, and without the demands of his Stanford studies, he should be able to shore up his short game enough to contend consistently.

He may not win 10 Masters, but few goals are beyond his interlocking grasp.

So great are the expectations of Tiger Woods that ESPN is showing the first two rounds of the Milwaukee tournament because of his decision to turn pro. Even the broadcast hours were selected based on Tiger's tee times.

Small wonder. Woods' U.S. Amateur match-play final drew a 5.3 rating Sunday afternoon, more than twice that of the concurrent World Series of Golf. The PGA Tour has been craving this sort of star power since the search for the Next Nicklaus began 20 years ago.

Pro golf has since been graced by the presence of such players as Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Curtis Strange and Tom Watson. None of them had anything approaching Woods' advance buildup. None of them started out with so far to fall.

''He's going to be one of those guys who can push product,'' Strange said of Woods. ''But if he doesn't perform, it won't last.''

$weet deals, blessings, curses

Woods is cursed in that he need never make another par to be set for life. His arrangements with Nike and Titleist are reportedly worth $43 million over the next five years. He is blessed that his ambition is the equal of his ability.

''My strongest part is my mind,'' he said. ''I've always felt that. I think I proved that in the U.S. Amateur, with the ability to hang in there.''

As an amateur, Woods competed in 17 professional tournaments, and made the cut seven times. His best finish to date was a tie for 22nd in last month's British Open.

''I feel if I have a chance to compete on a weekly basis,'' he said, ''my finishes are going to get a lot better.''

Time and talent are on his side. So is every tournament sponsor with tickets to sell and exemptions to grant.

''I even got a courtesy car,'' Tiger Woods said Wednesday. ''And I'm not old enough to actually rent one.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Aug. 29, 1996.