Woods' giant presence on stage reduces rest to supporting cast


BETHESDA -- Attention and acclaim have come to Tiger Woods in such massive, almost suffocating proportions, that he is, ready or not, a genuine, authenticated, bona fide deity. Nothing in the sphere of modern sports, certainly not in our lifetime, has approached his astonishing impact. Heroes come and go -- it's the nature of the games people play -- but his walk to gold and glory transcends all predecessors.

Names such as Bob Feller, Doak Walker, Mickey Mantle, Gene Littler and Cassius Clay (later to became Muhammad Ali) were young and gifted phenoms in various recreational specialties who lighted up the skies when they arrived on the scene with the ability to perform at remarkable levels of achievement. If you don't like the comparisons, then assemble your own pick of prodigies past.

But hold that Tiger. Maybe this golden knight of the fairway has not been entirely fair to himself. He's too good to be true, almost an illusion. As a fallout to his success comes a harsh, regrettable development. The golfers he plays with and against have been summarily reduced to being his supporting cast, mere background players, or names to fill out the pairing sheets so Woods can have live "sparring partners" to demonstrate his enormous skills.

He isn't going to win every tournament, maybe not even the U.S. Open when all the strokes are in, but the curiosity of the nation -- no, make that the world -- has been raised to such heights of adoration and proclamation that Tiger Woods is going to find Tiger Woods an almost impossible act to follow. Woods is the dominant figure; all the others are members of the rear guard, which is unfortunate and unfair, but this strange "rub of the green," as is said in golf, can't be minimized or denied.

When Tiger showed up at the U.S. Open site for practice last Monday, the sponsoring U.S. Golf Association, entering into the frenzy, playfully covered his entrance by dispatching the following advisory: "The much-anticipated arrival of Masters champion Tiger Woods came swiftly at 2: 51 [p.m.] as Woods, walking in his stocking feet and carrying his shoes, arrived at the Congressional clubhouse for registration, escorted by a phalanx of Montgomery County police who volunteered for security duty. "

Let it be noted that golfers frequently take off their street shoes and walk to the locker room area, where they then put on their golf shoes. Nothing unusual. But to document his appearance is something that never happened to anyone else, now or in the past, even if they happened to be Palmer, Nicklaus or Eisenhower.

Tiger has around $80 million in endorsement fees, thrust upon him by the likes of Nike, Titleist, Rolex and American Express. And this doesn't count his earnings from golf competition, nor does it include the $1 million-plus that a Pennsylvania businessman is giving him for merely making three appearances in celebrity tournaments. He'll soon be a columnist for Golf Digest and writing instruction books that clue-searching golfers will devour.

A news conference was held during the week in downtown Washington to introduce and explain his new logo. Tiger wasn't even there, but instead an array of male models were on stage to fashion the kind of shoes, shirts, sweaters, jackets, caps and trousers that will be available in stores and pro shops bearing the Woods' trademark. Woods has become an instant money machine. So were Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, but they took time to grow into it.

This is a rookie on the tour, a mere 21, whose satin-smooth swing capabilities have never been seen before. And here's more good news for the rest of the field. His coach, Butch Harmon, son of the much-respected Claude, insists he still hasn't put together four good rounds in a tournament, meaning his rivals have something even more extraordinary to cope with.

"I truly expect him to shoot a 59 on a big course in major competition," said Tom Callahan, the gifted columnist and author. "We've only seen a mere glimpse of what he can do."

This, of course, portends nothing but problems for those having to do battle with him.

In some ways, the timing is difficult for those he's leaving in his wake. A player and gentleman of the quality of Tom Lehman, age 38, came off a Minnesota farm to chase his dream, even to sleeping in his car when he was traveling during hard times. Last year, he resolutely forged to the front, earning first place on the money list, collecting along the way the British Open and Tour Championship.

But Woods' presence has reduced Lehman to a subjugated role before he hardly had a chance to enjoy the fullness of his good fortune. As for Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, both 27, with a wealth of ability, they figured to have a turn at the top, the chance to establish standout records and prominent identities. Woods, through no fault of his own, but in a way, has pre-empted both of them.

As for the likes of veterans Greg Norman, Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Fred Couples, Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange and others of similar repute, they are happy he's deflecting some of the stress created by the press and public. They've been around so long they hardly need the bothersome attention.

The intermediate-type pros, those occasional winners who grind it out on a regular basis every week of the season in pursuing a livelihood, are in shock over the enormous acceptance of Woods. They were raised on a pay-your-dues philosophy pounding balls, striving to develop sound swings and devoting enormous time to cultivating their ample talents.

But along comes Woods and, before he has even spent a full season on tour, he's where they had hoped to be by virtue of diligent and exhaustive preparation. With this situation has come resentment. Most of it is caused by the envy of seeing one so young leave college as a junior and immediately dwarf all the rest of them when it comes to taking command of the stage -- even when he loses.

Three weeks ago, Justin Leonard, only 24 and highly skilled in his own right, shot a 64 in the Colonial while Woods posted a 67. But, instead of being praised for the 64, he was questioned about Woods.

"To shoot 64 on a tough course and be asked about someone else, that's a negative," Leonard said. Then the fair-minded and equally honest Lehman gave it a different perspective, saying, "Most players on the tour have been lessened because Tiger is bigger than life."

But certainly, his ability and tender years can't be held against him. It's a blunt statement, but if they can't cope with Woods, then take a club or driving-range job. Dislike him, or be disenchanted, but don't attempt to be envious of his enormous talent, which he, too, persevered to develop.

The way to level off the sweeping Tiger Woods mania, which continues to escalate, is to go out and beat him if they can.

Pub Date: 6/15/97

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