A masterful pairing Tiger Woods: Whether the favorite wins the Masters this year is almost beside the point

he and Augusta National will have a huge impact on each other.

April 10, 1997|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- They were lined five deep, clicking their cameras, straining their necks or just merely gawking. They surrounded the green, trying to get a glimpse of Tiger Woods.

They were watching him practice putting.

Many had been to the Masters before. But Robert Bennett, an apartment manager for the Atlanta Housing Authority, has been coming to this city since he was a child growing up in Charleston, S.C.

Yesterday was Bennett's first trip to Augusta National.

"Tiger Woods is to golf what Jackie Robinson was to baseball," said Bennett, 55, who got practice-day tickets from a friend. "He is a role model for everyone, not just African-Americans. The majority of people here are not African-Americans, and they're following him."

They will be following Woods in today's opening round when play begins in the 1997 Masters. It will mark his third start here and his first major championship since turning pro last summer.

Woods, 21, has never broken par in his six rounds as an amateur and missed the cut last year. But he has been made the favorite -- at 8-1 -- to win, and those given a legitimate chance themselves are not ruling him out.

"I think it's very realistic," said Tom Lehman, the PGA Tour's reigning Player of the Year and a runner-up here twice. "One of the biggest things out here is that you can't be afraid to win. You can't be afraid when the pressure is on. Tiger's not afraid of any situation."

There is a different feel about this year's Masters, and it has nothing to do with the fact that the usually brilliant azaleas on the back nine bloomed two weeks ago. It has everything to do with Woods.

Though the number of spectators allowed on the grounds is controlled, the crowds around Woods certainly rival, if not exceed, those who have followed the game's biggest stars in the past.

Jack Stephens, the tournament's general chairman, said yesterday that security has not been increased because of Woods.

"We feel security has always been adequate, but we're ever aware of what is happening," said Stephens. "I'd say our awareness has been heightened this year. We do have the right to inspect people with incoming packages. None have been inspected."

Woods said that he could tell the difference during his first practice round Tuesday.

"The only hard part is when you're in the shadows and flash photography light up when you hit a tee shot," said Woods, who will tee off -- minus the flashbulbs -- at 1: 44 p.m. in a twosome

with defending champion Nick Faldo.

With three PGA Tour victories as a pro, Woods has become an intimidating presence in his first full year on tour. Evidence of that came when Lehman plunked a tee shot into a pond on a one-hole playoff at this year's Mercedes Championships. Woods put his a foot from the cup to win.

"When I got into contention here in the past, I've gotten nervous," said Lehman, who had yet to win a tournament when he lost a down-to-the-wire, back-nine shootout with Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain three years ago by two shots. "I can't see that happening with Tiger."

Woods said he doesn't think the notion of his winning this year is far-fetched.

"Is it realistic? I think so," he said. "I don't know if anyone else does. If things go my way, I might have a chance to win this tournament. Well, was it fair that Fuzzy [Zoeller] won in his first try? Whether I win at my third try or my 50th try, it really doesn't matter. It's whatever you believe here on this golf course."

The social significance of Woods' winning a tournament that didn't invite a black player until Lee Elder in 1975 is clear, though Woods has said in the past that his mother's Thai heritage and his father's part-American Indian ancestry would make it difficult to make such a claim.

Asked Tuesday if he would like to be viewed as a very good golfer instead of a very good black golfer, Woods said: "Sure, that's what you want. I'm here to play golf. Granted, I don't get sunburned as easily as some guys, but that's about it. I'm like anybody else. I'm trying to get the ball in the hole in as few shots as I can."

Woods would be the youngest ever to win the Masters, eclipsing Seve Ballesteros by a little less than two years. Ballesteros was also the youngest player in modern history to win a major, with his victory at the 1979 British Open coming when he was 22 years, 3 months, a couple of months younger than Jerry Pate was when he won the 1976 U.S. Open.

Those who wonder what impact a victory by Woods would have on Augusta National and the Masters need not ponder long. It is a club that prides itself on the privacy of its members and didn't take in a black member until 1990, a tournament that has been the one of the last bastions against commercialism in sports.

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