AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Even before he was out of the cradle, Eldrick "Tiger" Woods held a golf club instead of a rattle or a pacifier. At 3 months old, obviously the ideal age for indoctrination, his father put a cut-down putter in his hands.
This was before Tiger spoke his first word. He has done amazing things ever since. The Masters Tournament welcomes him as the incumbent national amateur champion, the youngest in history at 19, and Woods appears comfortable in these exalted surroundings, where legends reign.
Woods has the ability and attitude to continue to travel long distances -- how far hasn't yet been determined -- in this demanding and exacting game. He has something between his ears other than the Stanford University golf cap he wears. This is indeed a student-athlete.
"Golf is not my first priority," he insists. "No. 1 is my family; No. 2 is education. Golf is third."
Woods, a Stanford freshman, plans to major in economics and, no doubt, will have some high finances to manage when he eventually turns to a livelihood as a professional. For right now, he's one of four amateurs in the Masters' field that springs out of the starting tee boxes tomorrow.
Some self-proclaimed geniuses of the press box have dubbed him smug and arrogant. Obviously, they don't know quality when they see it. This is a remarkably intelligent youngster, perceptive of what's going on around him and confident he can handle any test he faces.
Asked about being a role model to other young people in America and around the world, he didn't blink an eye. "I'm comfortable with that. All I can do is be myself."
Registered as an Asian-American rather than an African-American, he explained, "I'm Indian, black, Asian and white. It's an injustice to just single me out as black. It's just unfair."
He's proud of his diversified background, an ideal candidate for exemplifying the grand melting pot that is America. His father, a former baseball catcher at Kansas State University, is half-black, part Chinese and American Indian. Tiger's mother, Klutida, is from Thailand -- thus the Asian-American blood lines.
Woods is here with the kind of resume that seems almost excerpted from a book of fiction. Last summer, he won the U.S. Amateur, the youngest to ever do it, and in 1991, 1992 and 1993 he succeeded as the U.S. Junior champion, another unprecedented achievement.
Two years ago, at 17, he won the junior driving championship with a hoist of 296 yards, clearing the Willamette River at the Waverley Country Club in Portland, Ore., but he's more than a slim, deceptive projectile of awesome power.
He's not the youngest to ever play in the Masters because teen-agers have been here before. But he has checked in with not only an impressive resume but the veteran professionals are rather overwhelmed with what they are seeing.
"He is a very talented young kid," praised Nick Faldo, a two-time Masters winner. "He has got the gift of the elasticity of youth because he has got some serious pivot of his shoulders . . . he hits the ball a heck of a long way . . . so just let him get on with it and see what develops over the next couple of years."
The speed of Woods' shoulders, created by the physical element of torque, as he explodes into the ball, is the key to his power. At 6 feet 2, 160 pounds, he's long and lean -- not muscular. In a practice round yesterday he was either right with Greg Norman, Fred Couples and Raymond Floyd off the tee or out in front.
Back to his father, Earl, a retired Army career man of 62 who was a Green Beret with two tours in Vietnam and another trip to Thailand in a supporting role. He never forced his son into golf, as some overly ambitious parents have been known to do, but instead gave him the equipment and the encouragement.
One of the most insightful things he had to say about Tiger, and that's what he calls him, is found in how he describes his son's initiation into the game. "I wanted him to grow up to be an instinctive and intuitive golfer, for the swing to be just as natural for him as throwing a baseball."
Right there, in a brief word-picture, is why Woods has developed the kind of full, free-wheeling swing that is so characteristic of his play. The first event he ever entered, according to dad, was when he was a mere 13 and finished second to Justin Leonard, then 17 and a University of Texas undergraduate.
"The tournament was what the kid golfers all call the 'Big I', put on by the Independent Insurance Agents of America in Texarkana, Ark. The other golfers and the people there didn't think he had any chance, but at 13 he was second to Leonard, who is now on the pro tour."
Tiger, far wiser than his years, says he is treating the Masters "like any other tournament." That has been said before by first-time participants but his manner of speech gives it a definite sound of credibility.
Asked if he had met with any difficulties on the Masters' property, the implication being a subtle question that could have led to racial charges, he shredded the question immediately. "I have not encountered any problems -- except the speed of the greens."
That's what golf is all about, a competition to get the ball in the hole, regardless of the complexion of the player who is stroking the ball.
His father, who is also his agent, volunteered the information that Tiger has adopted Charley Sifford like he's his grandfather. It's a special bond. I had nothing to do with it, it just happened."
Sifford is the highly-regarded pioneer who broke the color line on the PGA Tour but his belated success came late in life after earlier being denied the opportunity. But he never complained.
It would be oh, so fitting if Woods could eventually do all the things Sifford never had the chance to achieve because of the prejudice of the times.
Tiger Woods, if all things continue to evolve in such a positive way, will be a force for good -- on and off the golf course: a future champion worthy of major conquests because of the absolutely extraordinary skills he brings with him.