Woods' charge is glorious, but all good things must end

February 04, 1997|By John Eisenberg

Anyone who has ever attempted to guide a golf ball down a fairway knows what lies ahead for Tiger Woods, the golfing phenom for whom second place is a letdown these days.

He is going to experience frustration, disappointment and humility, as all golfers do, even the best.

He is going to curse the hitch in his swing, the shots that go awry and the first day he picked up a club.

Golf, the cruelest game, excuses no one from the horror of its many lessons.

You can't control golf, just as you can't control the natural elements in which it is played.

Golf controls you.

"The greatest players in the world struggle and go through slumps," said Mark O'Meara, who beat Woods by a stroke in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am this past weekend.

Woods has yet to experience that as a pro; he has finished in the top five in seven of 11 tournaments, winning three.

That's a fantasy, a suspension of golf's cold realities.

But who cares?

Let's hope those realities remain suspended for as long as possible.

Watching Woods tempt the odds and continue to perform magic every week is enough to take your breath away.

It's the most amazing thing in sports since, well, in a very long time.

If you don't agree, you didn't watch on television as Woods shot 63 and 64 in the final two rounds at Pebble Beach, and you certainly didn't watch him play the 18th hole Sunday.

Needing an eagle on the par-5 18th, one of the longest and most famous in golf, Woods whacked his drive about a mile and then launched a moon shot of a 3-wood that landed softly on the green, sending his enormous gallery into a frenzy.

No other golfer in the field had reached the green in two all week. Few have ever done so as easily, particularly with a title on the line.

Woods then strode toward the green with football-style cheers raining down around him, as if the green were laid out in the end zone of the Rose Bowl.

It was the sporting version of the Beatles coming to America, something new, different and obviously special.

Even though he pushed his eagle putt past the hole, settled for a birdie and finished a stroke behind O'Meara, his rally from 10 strokes off the lead in the final 36 holes was another glorious chapter in the legend of a 21-year-old about whom two biographies already have been written.

What's next? Let's only hope there is more.

In his first full season on the PGA Tour, Woods is spinning a miracle a week.

He won his first tournament of the year, the Mercedes Championships, by hitting a 7-iron within inches of the hole in a playoff with Tom Lehman.

He finished tied for 18th two weeks later at the Phoenix Open, but gave the tournament its biggest thrill with a hole-in-one on national television.

Then came his charge down the stretch at Pebble Beach, every bit as riveting as Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus in their primes; improbably, millions of TV viewers were flicking back and forth between a vintage Michael Jordan performance and a golf event.

Woods can't possibly keep it up, of course. At least, that's what golf's record book tells us.

Golf just doesn't get dominated the way Woods is dominating it, in the hunt every week. Tennis is always dominated by two or three top players, but golf is set up differently. You have to beat 150 other top golfers every day, not just the one across the court. That's too many tough opponents to beat every week.

In his best year, Nicklaus, the greatest golfer ever, won only seven of 18 tournaments. That's less than .400.

Just as baseball is a game of failure, with seven outs in 10 at-bats constituting success, golf is a game of defeat. You lose far more often than you win.

"Your life [as a golfer] is a long period of things," O'Meara said Sunday. "Tiger hasn't had a lot of failures yet. Sooner or later, he is going to struggle. To me, that's how you tell about someone: how they turn it around when they start struggling."

There are those in the game who are rooting for it to happen soon; they're jealous of Woods' new riches and prominence and that he has risen to the top without paying his dues.

What a joke.

Golf is lucky, enormously lucky, to have had Woods fall in its lap.

The fathers of all sports pray at night for such a deliverance, a star who crosses all boundaries and raises his game to a new level of popularity.

Horse racing would kill for such a celebrity, human or equine.

Baseball, stuck in a slump, could use one.

Golf got one. Golf got lucky.

The pressure on Woods to live up to his hype is almost shattering, but he has been up to it so far. He is delivering magic every week, pushing golf beyond its clubby limits into the sporting mainstream.

He can't keep it up, not if he is going to exist according to golf's existing natural order.

No one beats this game as Woods has beaten it since turning pro -- not for long, at least.

But who cares? We're witnessing something special, something we probably won't see again for years, if ever. Let's just enjoy the ride while it lasts.

Pub Date: 2/04/97

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