DUBLIN, Ohio - The path is clear for Tiger Woods because the path has been cleared. He leaves the scoring tent in the center of a security blanket - four policemen and nine marshals - a phalanx impenetrable to autograph seekers and other nuisances.
He is a young man in a hurry, and his time could not be more precious if the minutes were minted. Woods arrived at the Memorial Tournament via private jet from a Pennsylvania pro-am that paid golf's Galahad $1.3 million up front to commit to three one-day appearances.
Prize money is Woods' pocket change. At 21 years old, he has attained a level of fame that already has generated close to $100 million in endorsement deals and necessitates an increasing isolation. If he is not already a prisoner of his own celebrity, Tiger Woods is close enough to concede the putt.
To follow him is to fear for him. When does this guy get to breathe? On a typically miserable day at Muirfield Village, Woods played a relatively routine round before a throng of thousands. He shot an even-par 72 in The Memorial's moist first round, six shots off the lead, and yet the size of his gallery suggested rays of sunshine and strokes of genius.
"I think every 20-25 years in every sport there's someone who comes along who raises the bar," said former Ohio State basketball star Clark Kellogg, who was following Woods along the No. 6 fairway. "He's the guy in golf."
Has the talent
This much remains to be seen. Tiger Woods' talent is beyond dispute, and his potential is probably beyond comparison with any player short of Jack Nicklaus. Yet his buildup has been so big, and his selling so unrelenting that Woods may become one of the great athletes of the age and still fail to equal expectations.
"He looks about eight feet tall from here, doesn't he?" said a man behind the ropes at the No. 5 tee.
This was said before Tiger sliced his tee shot toward the trees lining the right side of the fairway; before he angrily shoved his driver back into his bag; before the player who often overwhelms par-5s took a six.
Woods' wayward drives would lead him to three bogeys in the first 12 holes. Golf is a game that can cut even an eight-footer down to size.
"Last week was left," Woods said later. "This week it's right. It's Army golf right now."
Does he have patience?
For most of the day, Woods' demeanor suggested he was carrying an infantryman's pack on a 20-mile hike. His standard response to cheers included no words and no waves, just a thin, toothless smile. On the exterior, at least, Tiger Woods appeared to be all work and precious little play.
"It was a tough day," he said. "I didn't hit the ball particularly well, and I hit a lot of shots pretty far off-line . . . You tend to lose your patience."
Woods counted five putts that lipped out, and he would not break par on any hole until he eagled the 498-yard No. 15 with a 25-foot putt. A birdie on No. 16 enabled him to reach even par. Behind by nine strokes at one stretch, he took solace that he had finished the round within striking range.
"I can't tell you what I figured out," he said, "because I really don't know."
Contrary to the image Nike has conceived for him, Tiger Woods does not have all the answers. Still, he is a fast learner. Woods stopped offering letter grades for the quality of his play after Brad Faxon told him some pros resented being beaten by his "C" game.
Woods has endeavored to fit in rather than flaunt his success, but his public life has taken on a life of its own. Thursday, Billy Andrade described the difficulty of getting seated in a restaurant that had set aside 25 tables for Woods and a small party.
Earlier, British Open champion Tom Lehman complained of the recent skew of public perception.
"Right now, it's at a point where Tiger Woods is Superman and everybody else is just a bunch of loyal serfs trying to keep up," Lehman said. "That's not the case at all. He's a great player, but there's lots of great players out here."
The question with Tiger Woods is whether mere greatness will be good enough.
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