In Masters runaway, Woods stands apart 21-year-old chases records, history today

April 13, 1997|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN COLUMNIST

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Everyone else has fallen away at Augusta National.

All that is left is Tiger Woods -- and all kinds of history waiting to be written.

Playing in his first major tournament as a professional golfer, Woods, 21, has turned the Masters into a celebration of diversity and his emergence as one of the world's best athletes.

Unerring and unflinching on some of golf's most dangerous ground, Woods shot 65 yesterday to take a nine-stroke lead after 54 holes.

Having wiped out a field that included Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and the rest of the world's best golfers, Woods has turned today's final round -- normally among the most tense days of the sports year -- into a coronation.

This is Secretariat winning the Belmont by 31 lengths, Michael Jordan draining three-pointers in the NBA Finals, Brooks Robinson vacuuming up at third base in the 1970 World Series, John McEnroe hitting a lilting drop shot from the baseline.

This is true sporting greatness, a rare talent loosed on mere mortals.

"He may be the kind of player who comes along once in a millennium," said Tom Watson, a former Masters champion who is tied for fourth, 11 shots behind Woods. "He may win nine or 10 Masters like Jack [Nicklaus] predicted."

He is going to win at least one, that's for sure; although Norman blew a six-shot lead and lost to Faldo in the final round a year ago, Woods, unlike Norman, doesn't have a long history of Sunday failures.

"There is no humanly way possible for Tiger to lose," Scotland's Colin Montgomerie said. "Faldo isn't chasing him. And Tiger Woods isn't Greg Norman."

That's for sure. Unlike the angst-ridden Norman, Woods fully expects to do what he is doing.

"Amazed? Not really," he said yesterday.

He considers this his destiny, to make sporting and social history.

The son of an African-American father and a mother born in Thailand, he would become the first minority champion of a tournament that was an all-white enclave for decades; no African-American golfer competed in the Masters until Lee Elder in 1975, and the Augusta National club didn't admit an African-American member until 1991.

While loath to suggest that the tournament was over, Woods did confess after yesterday's round that a victory would carry weight symbolically as well as athletically.

"It would mean a lot for a number of reasons," Woods said. "It would mean a lot to have won here, and to be the youngest player to win here. But more importantly, it will open a lot of doors and a lot of opportunity, and draw a lot of people into golf who never thought of playing the game. This could do a lot for minority golf."

No African-American has ever won any of golf's four major championships.

In a profound coincidence, Woods' victory today would come just two days before the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier in major-league baseball.

There are obvious similarities between the two athletes' circumstances, but also differences symbolic more of the different times in which they lived.

Robinson endured an endless succession of hardships and indignities; Woods has $40 million in the bank, courtesy of his endorsement contract with Nike.

Robinson was booed by millions of fans who wanted to see him fail; Woods is enormously popular, receiving numerous ovations

yesterday.

Robinson opened the door for African-Americans in all sports; Woods will help open doors in golf, a sport that will remain predominantly country clubbish, despite Woods' success.

Still, an African-American golfer running away with the Masters is a victory for equality, a sight for everyone to cheer, a sign that progress toward racial equality still can be won, no matter how discouraging the situation seems at times.

Woods is a perfect candidate for the job, a virtual clone of Robinson in his ability to narrow his focus, block out all distractions and concentrate on his game.

"He has the heart of a lion," Watson said.

Expectations for his first appearance at the Masters centered on the implications of a possible victory, but he is rendering even those weighty matters less important with his stunning display of golf.

He shot 40 on the front nine and 30 on the back Thursday, came back with a 66 on Friday and somehow managed to top those rounds yesterday with a bogey-free afternoon that bordered on perfection.

"I came in here playing really well," said Woods, who shot a 59 in a practice round last week, "but if I drive the ball well, which I'm doing, I'm at a great advantage here."

Many observers felt that he had a chance to win here because of his absurdly long tee shots, but no one expected him to destroy Augusta National.

He has the largest lead in Masters history after 54 holes.

He is 13-under-par after 27 holes on the course's famed back nine.

A 69 today would give him the lowest 72-hole score in Masters history, surpassing a record set by Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd that some thought would stand forever.

"It's incredible stuff, fantastic stuff," Watson said. "He's a boy amongst men, and he's teaching the men how to play."

Woods' reaction? Here's what he did after shooting that 66 on Friday: "Ate a burger and fries, played a little pingpong, played a little Sony play-station. It was a good night."

And what about his Saturday night?

"Same thing," he said.

It's hardly the same picture as the jittery Norman taking his big lead into the final round a year ago.

Woods is different -- in almost every way, he is different from what golf has known before.

We thought we knew that already, before the Masters began.

We know now, for sure.

After witnessing 54 holes of athletic greatness -- the real kind, beyond the hype, the kind that writes history that will stand -- do we ever know for sure.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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