Earl's son drives game to different level

April 12, 1997|By John Eisenberg

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- A few minutes before his son was scheduled to tee off in the second round of the Masters yesterday, Earl Woods sat underneath a giant magnolia tree by the clubhouse at Augusta National.

"What about it, Earl?" someone asked. "What's going to happen today?"

A smile escaped onto his mouth. "If he hits it in the fairway today, look out," Tiger Woods' father said.

Earl was the one who said last year that his son would become the most influential person born in the 20th century, so, with all due respect to a father who has worked hard to raise his son right, it would appear Earl tends to get a little overheated sometimes.

But brother, did he ever nail yesterday's round on the sweet spot.

A day after a flurry of errant tee shots almost knocked him out of contention on the front nine of the first round, Tiger Woods drove the ball almost impossibly long and straight yesterday.

The result was five birdies, an eagle, a 66 and a three-shot lead in the Masters after 36 of the most stunning holes seen in years here.

"It's a shame Bob Jones isn't here," said Jack Nicklaus, referring to the Masters' late and legendary founder, "because, like [Jones] said about me in '63, this young man is playing a game we're not familiar with."

Nicklaus and the rest of the golf world were curious to see if Woods, 21, would put on a magic show in his first major tournament as a pro.

He has given them a better show than even his most loyal supporters would have expected.

Woods isn't just playing well on golf's grandest stage; he's playing with a flair for the dramatic unseen since Arnold Palmer's heyday.

After dropping jaws by shooting a 40 on the front nine and a 30 on the back in Thursday's first round, Woods was even more theatrical yesterday on a cloudy afternoon that smelled of a rain that never came.

He chipped in for a birdie on No. 2 and almost drove the green on No. 3, a 360-yard par 4.

On his approach shot on No. 9, hitting from a grove of trees and off a bed of straw, he hooked his ball around the trees, toward the green, off a spectator and onto the green for a two-putt and a par.

He sank a 20-foot eagle putt on No. 13 and almost holed out a 140-yard approach shot on No. 14, settling for a birdie.

He hit a sand wedge onto the green with his second shot on No. 15, a 500-yard par 5.

That's right, a sand wedge put him on a par-5 green in two.

That's not golf as we know it; it's something else entirely.

"This is what I came here to try to do, to try to win the tournament," Woods said. "I'm pretty proud of the way I played. I didn't force anything, I played strategic golf."

After two rounds, Woods is 10-under on Amen Corner and the rest of Augusta National's infamous back nine.

Say amen, Amen Corner.

Since turning for the back nine Thursday, he has gained 12 shots on par in 27 holes.

What is this, the Phoenix Open? Uh, hardly. Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Phil Mickelson, Ray Floyd and Seve Ballesteros were among those who missed the cut yesterday, telling you all you need to know about how tough the course is playing.

Meanwhile, Woods almost ran away from the field despite missing four very makeable putts that would have dropped his score into the low 60s.

A string of dead solid perfect tee shots made it all possible.

Woods was in trouble on only one hole -- the ninth -- and so long that he continually hit wedges and high irons into the greens.

Legend has it that the best putter wins at Augusta National, but who needs putting when you're mashing your drives 40 yards farther than anyone else?

On No. 3 yesterday, Woods out-drove his playing partner, Paul Azinger, by at least 80 yards. His ball stopped just in front of the green. The huge gallery started whooping and high-fiving.

Woods proceeded to push his chip past the hole and three-putt for his only bogey of the day, but word of his mammoth drive quickly spread to fans at other holes.

Woods' response to the shot was typically clinical; despite what his fist-clinching, arm-pumping celebrations would suggest, he is unemotional about his game.

He said he won't hit a driver on the hole again unless the pin is set back farther on the green, giving him a better shot at it from the front fringe.

Such problems.

Reporters wanted him to declare that he thought the tournament was in his hands now, but he wasn't biting. Good idea. The tournament isn't in his hands yet.

If Norman can lose a 6-shot lead in 11 holes on Sunday, as he did last year, Woods' 3-shot lead after 36 holes doesn't mean diddly.

Still, there is no doubt Woods is going to be tough to beat, particularly if he continues to drive so well.

He certainly has his eyes on the prize; after yesterday's round he went straight to the practice tee and hit two bags of balls.

"You can always get better," he said.

He can't get much better after a 40-30 and a 66, but he might.

After 36 holes like that, are you going to doubt him?

Pub Date: 4/12/97

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