LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- If someone had taken this screenplay to Michael Eisner, the Disney chairman probably would have fallen out of his chair, laughing in disbelief at the naivete.
Disney may deal in fantasy, but what Tiger Woods has done the past two months makes "Fantasia" look like a documentary.
Picture it. After two years at Stanford, a 20-year-old golfer wins his third straight U.S. Amateur tournament, quits school to turn pro, immediately signs endorsement deals worth $60 million and wins two PGA Tour events in seven attempts.
The first victory comes at Las Vegas, the second comes at Disney World. A person of color -- black, Thai, Native American -- storms the lily-white game of professional golf and not only succeeds, but also dominates, becomes a cult hero, beats two established pros head to head and interrupts National Football League highlights.
He has five consecutive top-five finishes, a streak that hasn't been achieved on the PGA Tour since 1982 (by Curtis Strange).
This is way over the top. It is also true. Woods added another
implausible chapter to his growing legend yesterday. On a brilliant afternoon in Central Florida, he went head to head with former U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart and beat him, shooting a round of 66 to Stewart's 67 and posting a total of 21-under-par 267 to win the Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic by a stroke.
So a late-season attempt by Woods to win enough money to qualify for next year's tour turned into the grandest coming-out party in the game's history. His $216,000 check for the victory gave him $734,794 for his short season, putting him 23rd on the earnings list. That secured him a spot in the elite Tour Championship this week in Tulsa, Okla., reserved for the top 30 money winners of the year.
A sense of the unreal hovered over yesterday's proceedings from beginning to end. For most of the afternoon, Woods and Stewart traded splendid shots, while a rookie named Taylor Smith kept moving up the leader board. By the end of the day, Smith had actually tied Woods at 21-under with a birdie at the final hole, but was then disqualified for using a putter with grips that did not conform to U.S. Golf Association specifications.
"This is very gratifying, very satisfying," Woods said, "but I have mixed emotions. I feel like I should have been in a playoff with Taylor. It's unfortunate, what happened to him, because he played his heart out."
In the end, though, Smith's final-round 67 was disallowed because the split grips on his putter handle were flat on one side, a violation of Rule 4-1c of the Rules of Golf. He was turned in by his playing partner, Lennie Clements, who told tour officials at the ninth hole that the putter was illegal.
"Lennie did the right thing," said Smith, who played the back nine while he appealed the disqualification. "He had to protect the field."
Frank Thomas, the technical director of the USGA, was awakened at 6 a.m. by the phone call to his hotel room in Japan. He explained the rule, and Smith yielded.
Huge crowds also helped provide a bizarre twist.
At one point, while Woods and Stewart were standing on the sixth green, the enormous gallery cut through some underbrush and spooked a deer from hiding. The frightened animal ran across the seventh fairway and -- this really happened -- attracted an alligator, which scurried to the bank of a pond to make a brief, and unsuccessful, run at the deer.
It is difficult to convey the sort of excitement Woods generates at tournaments. He attracts fans who previously would have regarded the game with disdain, many of them youngsters and members of minority groups, and they are vocal and uninhibited in their support.
"All the accolades need to go to Tiger for the way he's played and conducted himself over the last eight weeks," said Stewart, who invited Woods, his new Orlando, Fla., neighbor, over for prime rib and beer last night. "He's a wonderful player. He's the shot in the arm our tour needed."
That's the good news. Here's the bad news for those PGA Tour players who are rubbing their eyes at Woods' early play.
"It may be surprising to some guys, but it's not surprising to people who know me, but I haven't really played my best yet," Woods said. "I've hit the ball pretty good, but not the greatest. I haven't had the greatest putting round yet.
"But I've managed my game really well. If you ask Nicklaus how many majors he won when he hit the ball great the entire week, he'd say zero. Because he never did. He managed his game really well. That's exactly what I'm doing."
He's managing better than any golfer ever has in his debut. Nicklaus won 18 professional majors in his career, but at this point in his rookie season his best finish was a tie for second.
Pub Date: 10/21/96