It was inevitable: Woods' talent gives carpers, cynics free rein

April 13, 1997|By JOHN STEADMAN

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Drift back through antiquity, to centuries obliterated by the sand traps of time, to when lonesome shepherds were using their crosiers in a Scottish rite of self-amusement. What they were inadvertently inventing was to be later formalized as golf but, out of frustration, also referred to by other names not fit for use in refined company.

In the primitive past, the shepherds were knocking stones about the meadows and bringing creation to this most damnable vixen of all games that sends the strongest and sternest of warriors to their knees, pleading for mercy.

Golf, one of mankind's remaining unsolved puzzles, now brings an astounding prodigy to the spotlight of center stage. He dropped the name Eldrick, given to him as an infant, and is now more appropriately known as Tiger Woods.

This is hallowed ground, the Augusta National Golf Club. But no player has ever made an impression comparable to what Woods is doing. It's almost as if some mystical power has taken over -- not a mere mortal playing the same course as the rest of the field.

When he wins, it's never going to be an upset because his reservoir of ability knows no limits. He's a threat any time he puts a tee in the ground. Woods is still at a formative age, 21, a time when most other young men have no idea in what direction they are heading.

Is it heresy to say, without reservation, that he threatens the regal position of such elite predecessors as the sacrosanct troika of Robert Tyre Jones Jr., otherwise known as Bobby; Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus, not to mention such other legends as Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead?

This is just the beginning of the Tiger Woods Era. If you have any relevancy to connecting to what he has already achieved, then it was easily discernible that he be perceived, even at this rookie stage, as potentially the finest golfer the world has known. It's easy to get carried away in measuring what he can do, even though he hasn't yet actually achieved the records of others he is competing against. Tiger is devouring them.

Having such an endowment of talent, in the performing arts and sports, brings with it an unwelcome scrutiny that isn't always quite fair. Woods hasn't yet won any of the major classics of his sport, but already some self-anointed critics, mere jackals in the jungle, are trying to belittle him, but they are wasting their breath.

He was, in truth, caught off stride using bad language and engaging in a session of telling dirty jokes by a national magazine writer. It was an embarrassment to himself, to his parents, the way he was raised and also to the grand citadel of learning known as Stanford University, where he was studying economics so he'd be better equipped to handle the money his golf swing promised to bring him.

But, without a doubt, there is a double standard rearing its ugly head and snarling around this phenomenal talent and anticipated icon-to-be. Woods deserves to be judged by the same code of conduct granted other men and women. If you've ever spent time with Snead, on or off the golf course, there were similar moments of blue stories spicing the conversation.

To offer other pertinent examples, Hogan and Hagan drank more than even their close friends and bartenders ever knew. But they, like Snead, were golfers, not Trappist monks devoted to lives of religious meditation and self-sacrifice. Yet a young practitioner of the sport, Woods, is being singled out for a special kind of specific judgment.

Why should he be held up to certain prescribed lines of evaluation? Hasn't he already served as a credit to golf by the way he plays and the manner in which he carries himself?

To use a modern refrain, bordering on triteness, cut him some slack.

Carrying it to a ridiculous level of so-called impropriety, there was an actual cause celebre resulting from his picture appearing on the cover of an earlier U.S. Golf Association Journal that showed him thrusting his fist in the air after winning a championship. Letters came to the publication from subscribers saying he deserved to be censured.

But, come on. How many times have Palmer, Nicklaus and all the rest of the touring pros made similar gestures to express jubilation when a vital shot has dropped into the cup? It goes with the game, getting a putt to drop for victory and extending 5/8 5/8 TC hand to signal elation. Golfers at every country club and public course react the same way. Why can't Woods do it, too? Don't stifle his emotions.

"Society has changed," said Woods. "It used to be that people were more respectful of each other's privacy and private lives. Now they want to know the dirt." Obviously, he knows whereof he speaks. And success exerts a toll.

He hasn't reached the summit, but he is headed there and already the cynics are trying to pull him down. Woods is not perfect, as those of us who applaud him for his ability and demeanor would constantly like him to be.

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