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Golf should roar along with Woods

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BETHESDA -- For those who couldn't make it, here's a brief summation of what everyone was talking about during yesterday's practice round at the U.S. Open:

Tiger, Tiger, Tiger, Tiger, Tiger, Tiger, Tiger, Tiger, Tiger, Tiger, Tiger (and a few other things for 30 seconds).

Approximately three of the 25,000 fans at Congressional Country Club weren't following Tiger Woods around the course during his morning round.

Approximately four of the dozens of questions asked of numerous golfers at many news conferences weren't about whether Tiger was a good golfer and/or a cool guy.

Defending Open champion Steve Jones followed Woods into the interview room shortly after noon, and it was as if he came in announcing that the media buffet had just opened. The room emptied as Woods left.

The fact that Congressional is the first Open course in 89 years to end with a par-3? That's interesting and everything, but it's kind of a golf thing, isn't it? What fans really want to know is whether Tiger is dating Tyra Banks. (We don't know.)

All of which raises a question heard more and more often in the golf world: Is Tigermania good for the game?

Is it healthy that the sport has become "All Tiger, All The Time?" That a tournament basically no longer exists unless Tiger is near the top of the leader board?

The answer, quite simply, is yes.

It's great for golf, tremendous for golf, a stroke of good fortune envied by the bigwigs of every other sport.

They'd all give millions to have The Next Big Thing bless their sport and turn it into must-see TV.

Baseball gives us Albert Belle, golf gives us Tiger Woods. Who wins? Duh.

Golf was already riding a crest of popularity before Woods came along, so it's going to do just fine without him.

And with him, it's taking a giant leap forward into the mainstream that has resisted it for so long because of its restrictive policies.

The money gets better, the fame gets hotter, the stakes get higher, the visibility soars, millions of new players pick up clubs, everyone wins.

The fact is that golf got incredibly lucky when one of its own turned into the next Michael Jordan.

Some grumps think it could get dull if Woods starts winning every tournament, a debatable line of thinking: The Chicago Bulls have only gotten more popular while adding championships year after year.

No, the only real problem for golf is it's no fun having the spotlight stolen from you, a fate that has befallen many golfers since Woods turned pro last August.

Many golfers who have accomplished more than Woods on the PGA Tour have been rendered all but invisible, which is why there is jealous grumbling in the clubhouses about the merits of Woods' influence.

Before the Memorial Tournament several weeks ago, Tom Lehman came into the interview room and fielded questions for 30 minutes. Even though Lehman won the British Open and led the PGA Tour in earnings last year, he was asked mostly about Woods.

Finally, someone asked, "Does it get annoying to have accomplished as much and come in here and talk about someone else?"

Lehman smiled and said simply, "Yes, it does."

He was even more pointed during the Kemper Open last weekend.

"Tiger is put on a pedestal like he's untouchable, and I don't think that's accurate," he said. "I don't see Tiger and then the rest of us. He's only 21. He's shown what he's capable of, but I'm not ready to say I'm second best. I'm not ready for that crap."

Lehman deserves credit for his honesty and for having the stomach to voice what other golfers are saying privately, but he doesn't understand.

A lot of people in golf don't understand.

Tigermania isn't about Tiger being miles better than everyone else on the course.

Tigermania is about the machinations of celebrity in the '90s more than it is about sports.

Woods first became famous because of what he did on the course, but he's beyond that now. He's famous now because, well, he's famous.

He's fresh, different and unusual, and no one expected it to get this big, and there's no explaining the runaway momentum, and there's certainly no turning back once you make the cover of People magazine.

He isn't necessarily the best golfer in the world, just the most popular. Big difference.

And his popularity isn't a referendum on his superiority as a golfer.

It's a statement about his appeal.

Yes, that appeal does pose problems for others at times; his galleries are so enormous that many fans run ahead to get a chance to see him, interfering with the play of the groups in front of him.

"I feel for those guys in front of me," Woods said yesterday.

And yes, by pledging his determination to win every tournament he enters, Woods has fostered the thinking among come-lately fans that such constant success is possible, when, in fact, the PGA Tour is a shark pool and Woods will be lucky to win occasionally.

But that's his problem, isn't it?

Anyway, the point is that his popularity is a good thing for the game, not a bad thing.

Only inside the game, where Woods is stealing thunder in high places, does anyone consider it a bad thing.

That's myopia, pure and simple.

Tiger Woods is so good for golf in so many ways that it's almost ridiculous even to consider the other side of the debate.

Pub Date: 6/11/97

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