ON THE PROWL

THE BALTIMORE SUN

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He has dominated the talk leading up to the 1995 Masters tournament, from the newspaper and magazine stories around the world to press-room interviews at Augusta National.

Even yesterday, when he was forced off the course by back spasms after only five holes, it became a big enough story to merit a spur-of-the-moment news conference. The legend of Tiger Woods continues to grow.

Nobody in the game's history -- not Nicklaus or Palmer, not Norman or Daly -- has been hyped as much and for as long as this 19-year-old prodigy. And nobody has backed up the hype with a more impressive amateur resume.

Today, Woods will try to add to his legacy when he becomes only the fourth black player and the first since Jim Thorpe in 1988 to tee it up at the Masters.

At his news conference yesterday afternoon, Woods made it clear he's majoring in economics, not history, at Stanford. He refused to get pulled into any long discussion about the 20th anniversary of Lee Elder's historic appearance at a place where blacks had walked the course only as caddies.

Asked if he had experienced any difficulties since arriving from California, Woods said: "I have not encountered any problems except for the speed of the greens."

Not that the only child of Earl, a retired Green Beret, and Tida Woods, a native of Thailand whom Earl met during his tour in Vietnam, is unaware of the sociological significance of his rise to fame.

"It is fine being a role model," said Woods. "Actually, it is quite an honor being a role model. Not too many people do. The only thing I have to do is just be myself, and that's about it. That is all I can do."

Woods is blunt, if anything. When someone asked him whether his first impression of the world's most famous golf venue met his expectations, his answer was the kind that could get other players -- or television analysts, for that matter -- not invited back.

"Well, when I first arrived here, I thought, 'Magnolia Lane, is that it?' " said Woods. "I thought that was a pretty short drive. From what everyone says, it is majestic and say it is a long drive and you can't believe it.

"I thought it was a very short drive. The clubhouse is a lot smaller than what appears on TV, and the golf course, one thing I found out, it is jammed together. The holes run right next to each other, the [tee] boxes are right next to the green. It is pretty much the old style."

He already has played practice rounds with two-time champion Nick Faldo as well as Greg Norman, who has set all sorts of records for Masters frustration during his career. As is custom here, he will play his first round today with defending champion Jose-Maria Olazabal of Spain. Because of Woods, they likely will outdraw nearly every other twosome, possibly with the exception of six-time champion Jack Nicklaus.

"It's always going to be tough to live up to any expectations the media puts on any young person," Nicklaus said yesterday. "He has to be very special to reach them. To this point, Tiger has been very special. He's not been able to play up to expectations, he's gone beyond them. I see no reason why he won't be able to handle it, because he's probably had more publicity than any young player in a long, long time."

Woods caused a stir the first time he played the course. During a practice round Monday with Faldo, Woods, 6 feet 1, 148 pounds, launched a huge drive on the historic, par-5 15th hole. It wound up some 75 yards past Faldo's and was measured at 330 yards from the tee. He hit a 9-iron on the same hole Nicklaus used a 4 in his dramatic comeback victory in 1986.

Though Woods didn't hole out for double eagle, as Gene Sarazen did en route to victory 60 years ago in the most famous shot in Masters history or as Jeff Maggert did with slight embarrassment last year (he finished tied for last), Woods' second shot stopped four feet from the cup and he calmly took his eagle.

"He hits it long," Faldo said later. "His shoulders are impressively quick through the ball. That's where he's getting his power from. He's young, and he has great elasticity."

He also has tremendous resolve, something Earl Woods instilled in his son from the earliest age. The stories about the elder Woods, a former college baseball player at Kansas State, are nearly as legendary as those about his son. Did you hear the one about Earl testing his son's concentration by dropping his bag while Tiger drew back his club?

Some might think Earl Woods is golf's answer to tennis' Jim Pierce, who allegedly abused his daughter Mary verbally and physically, or football's Marv Marinovich, whose raised-to-be-a-quarterback son Todd became an experiment gone wrong. Both turned out to be examples of how not to raise world-class athletes.

"I wanted to make sure he'd never run into anybody who was tougher mentally than he was," Earl Woods said in a recent nine-page article on his son in Sports Illustrated.

But Wally Goodwin, the golf coach at Stanford for the past eight years, said yesterday that "he is a remarkable young man. I think he's a better person than he is a player. He's probably the most outstanding kid I've ever coached. He's very well-balanced, unbelievably so considering what he has become. If every kid in America had the parental influence this kid had, America would be a better place."

Though they had a sports psychologist work with Tiger since he was 13, there was always some balance to the way the Woodses raised their son. Earl Woods became as much as traveling companion as he was a father. According to the Sports Illustrated profile, Tida never used a baby-sitter for Tiger.

The result, at least publicly, is a shy, somewhat aloof teen-ager who seems a bit bored with the attention. Then again, it's only natural, considering his life has been chronicled since the age of 3, that he became the youngest player to compete in a PGA event (at the 1992 Los Angeles Open, when he was 16) and the youngest (and first black) to win the U.S. Amateur.

"You have to understand that the media has been following me since I was very young," said Woods, when asked why he doesn't seem affected by the pressure of great expectations. "So it has been a gradual process, something where I could get used to it."

Goodwin said it helped Woods get through what had the makings of a traumatic experience last fall, when Woods was mugged outside his dorm in Palo Alto, Calif. The mugger called Woods by name, then held a knife to the player's throat and took a gold chain off his neck. The lessons Earl Woods taught him served him well.

"If it had been me, I wouldn't have come out of my closet for a month," Goodwin said.

It might have allowed him to brush off yesterday's back spasms with the same remarkable calm. "It was just a little twinge," said Woods, who was on the putting green within an hour. "I've done this before. I've got no pain. I'll be ready to go."

If he has problems this afternoon trying to figure out the nuances of Augusta National and shoots 80, the attention likely will cool off for a while. But for some reason, few expect that to happen. There's almost an anticipation of Woods' taking the tournament by storm, doing what he was does best: the unimaginable.

In this case, winning.

"It is just another tournament," said Woods, sounding more like a jaded veteran than a Masters rookie. "It just happens to be a major. You have to treat it that way. At least I do. I don't know what the other guys are doing. I'll just go out there and do my HTC best and try to win and see what happens."

MASTERS FACTS

What: 59th Masters

When: Today through Sunday

Where: Augusta National Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.

Course: Par 72, 6925 yards

The field: Includes former champions Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and defending champ Jose-Maria Olazabal.

TV: USA (today-tomorrow, 4-6:30 p.m.), CBS (Saturday, 3:30-6 p.m.; Sunday, 4-7 p.m.)

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