As a child Tiger Woods chipped marshmallows into Bob Hope's mouth. At 21 he is doing something more remarkable still: he is transforming the way golf is played around the world. It's a trick which has already earned him more than $40m
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In February , the flowerbeds around the golf tees of Pebble Beach, California, glow an almost painful green. Fingers of ice-plant are fat with winter rain; giant-leafed geraniums grasp at a sun that mocks the season. And this year, as always when Pebble Beach holds its AT&T National Pro-Am, the flowerbeds were roped off with a heavy, unavoidable twine. Club officials patrolled this border in red jackets and plus-fours, with the narrow eyes of Americans protecting territory. And this year, for the first time anybody could remember, they were utterly ignored.

It happened on the very first hole. One minute, the spectators were a patient ring around the tee: stock-still grandmothers, women with pearls, fathers and sons with the same college haircuts, waiting for play to start as the dawn gilded the pine trees. The next, they were a buttoned- up landslide, lifting the ropes, squeezing underneath them, stamping the pulp from the ice-plants, spilling geranium petals and churning the soil in between. The officials reddened and scuttled to the breach, too late: a new, tighter ring had formed, half in and half out of the flowerbeds, with cheeky peninsulas of pensioners curling right across the smooth plateau of the tee itself, as if they wanted to hit the shots themselves.

Golf fans are not expected to behave like this. At Pebble Beach they had got up early, parked neatly down the hill, shuffled cheerily up the prescribed path to the course, dropping their empty takeaway cappucinos carefully in the roadside bins. A balmy, drawn-out day of soft putts and measured chips surely beckoned - spectators of a certain age following sportsmen not a great deal younger, or thinner. Jack Nicklaus (56) and Nick Faldo (39) were first to the tee, both hallowed talents a little heavy in the rear and stomach, just like the restaurant regulars back at the Pebble Beach Lodge. But no one had trampled flowerbeds to watch them. Instead, necks craned away as they swung, towards the small warm- up green behind, and the player who was waking up drowsy golf days forever: Tiger Woods was playing next.

From 40 yards, he seemed as slim as the pines. Between practice putts he walked to retrieve his balls with a loose, gliding stride, long arms hanging by his sides, the cuffs of his polo neck rolled up to expose wrists like fine piping. When he looked up, as he did perhaps every five minutes, his face was baby-smooth, blank with concentration. Rare for this sport of veterans, a true prodigy was at work: Woods is barely 21. Rarer still, the object of every straining gaze at white California's favourite country club was a black man.

"There's Tiger!" shouted a man with a moustache at his wife. His voice twanged of the South. "I'd say he was the best thing ever happened in golf." Cars slowed on the road past the practice green to get a look. Woods stepped down to the tee for the first hole, a wedge of officials round him like escorting fighter aircraft, his narrow-cut jumper and chinos flapping in the breeze. His mouth hung slightly open, tense. His eyes were wide and glazed, the surrounding, jabbing cameras closer than his playing partner. "Go get 'em Tiger!" shouted the man with the moustache.

This was the longest hole of the tournament: 600 yards of sinking, angling turf, tunnelling through trees to the sea. Woods glanced along it, reached into his golf bag, which was thicker than his waist, and pulled out a soft toy. For a few moments, as he waved his rain-frayed tiger mascot to the crowd, he was an eager undergraduate with a half-moon smile, thrilled to be playing at all. Then he took out his driver, whippy and bulbous as a weapon. The ring around him quietened; the birds were suddenly the loudest sound. Feet lightly planted, forearms seeming to thicken, Woods drew back his club and swung. Its shaft slashed by in a flicker of metal, whispering against the chatter of cameras. Woods's back hinged and twisted like a dancer's, one foot almost leaving the ground. With a small pop, the ball was gone.

It rose, very straight and white against the deepening blue of the sky. For a long time, it refused to dip. Small noises swelled in the crowd; the Pacific seemed to beckon, half a mile away. Then the pines reared up, the ball began to curve, and it fell, clamped to the fairway. "Gosh, that's beautiful," said one of the officials.

TIGER WOODS is transforming golf in a very simple way: by hitting the ball further than anyone else. Before he turned professional, barely six months ago, any player who could regularly drive the ball 270 yards was considered a huge hitter. Last year, a musclebound American called John Daly began to average nearly 290 yards. Woods, with his student's shoulders, often manages - more accurately - 330, sometimes 350, even 360.

He has shrunk the holes. Allied to all the necessary stabs and nudges, Woods's long shots race him to the flag in three or four strokes when the course says five, two or three when it says four. The whole obstructive geography of golf landscaping - slopes, dog legs, ponds, bunkers - suddenly seems to be in the wrong place. Woods just hits over them, and walks past, beaming.

Successes have come in procession since his early teens. Woods was the American Junior Amateur champion in 1991, 1992 and 1993; and American Amateur champion in 1994, 1995 and 1996, the only player to do the latter in three successive years. His professional trajectory since has had the arrogant tilt of his drives: 60th in his first tournament, then 11th, fifth, third, and first. In a game where guile and full-grown strength are assumed essential, and players peak in their thirties and forties, past prodigies like Nicklaus and Ballesteros did not win a competition in their first 20 attempts. Woods has already won four.

And this precocity has not been bloodless. Woods may have won a golf scholarship to Stanford, California's private university for brats and technocrats; he may have been on television at the age of three, or four, or five - the legends differ - chipping marshmallows into Bob Hope's gawping mouth; but his golf is flashing, reckless, all attack. Fairways are for lashing, not cautious placement; trees are to be hit over, not round. This is a winning strategy, but it is also a new kind of theatricality, as much derived from basketball and American football, with their big plays endlessly looped by TV, as it is from the quieter tricks of golf. Woods calls his big drives "red-ass specials". He thrives on the direct confrontation of play-offs. He wins tournaments at the death, storming through the field in a special red shirt he pulls on as he feels the victory moment coming.

To thrill to this, as you might have thrilled to Pele or Botham or Blanco, you do not have to be a traditional golf fan. You do not really have to understand golf. In Phoenix, Arizona, the week before Pebble Beach, perhaps 30,000 people watched him play a single hole of a tournament. He got it in one, shouting and punching the air, against a roaring desert horizon of beer-happy frat boys. Playing his third competition in as many weeks, he only came 18th overall, but the television replays soon forgot that.

Naturally, such triumphs also mean money. Woods's amateur victories fed a sponsors' bidding war for years before he could receive as much as a free dinner. On turning professional he chose Nike, and $40m, with $3m on the side from Titleist, makers of the balls he batters. Barely six months later, the free-for-all of American celebrity surrounds him like a buzzing cloud: six biographies in progress, an award as Sports Illustrated's man of '96, famous caddies scrambling to carry his golf bag. Merely the rumour that Woods would endorse McDonalds prompted newspaper appeals to him by healthfood polemicists.

In a sport of sensible chaps called Mark O'Meara and Jesper Parnevik, Tiger Woods is as sellable as his name - with its suggestions of snappiness and fierceness and cuteness - or, in a more complicated way, his race. Woods has an African-American father and a Thai mother; his more distant relatives have been, variously, Chinese, Cherokee, and European. Woods's mother thinks he is "the Universal Child"; his father claims, "Tiger is the Chosen One. He'll have the power to impact nations." Their gush conceals a keen sense of global marketing. Golf, like football, is truly a world game; unlike football, it is played mostly by the middle class and has a strong presence in America, where the big advertisers and sponsors are. The consumers of many countries can be persuaded to believe in the willowy hybrid called Tiger Woods. In Thailand, he is already mobbed.

In America, however, he is black - and thus utterly apart from all but a few players, none of them remotely as successful, in the whole history of that country's professional golf. Until well into the Seventies, every player at the US Open in Augusta was white and every caddie was black. In some contexts, the colour of Woods's skin is still a disadvantage. In 1992 he received death threats during the LA Open. But his blackness has also contributed to his celebrity. Black teenagers were never very interested in golf before. In a period when white teenagers buy black rappers' records by the million, Woods has a different sort of glamour for them too. And their parents may find his polite ascent reassuring, as evidence of possible and unthreatening black advancement. Golf has its own Michael Jordan now.

Until recently, Woods seemed keen to let these contradictory currents of affection flow, without sharp comment. "It's an injustice to all my heritages to just single me out as black," he said in 1995. "I don't want to be the greatest black golfer ever, just the greatest golfer ever." Then Nike became his sponsor, and Woods made a television advertisement. Much of it was bragging - a golf course Muhammad Ali - until one of the last sentences: "There are still some courses in the United States that I am not allowed to play on because of the colour of my skin." Woods was criticised: overtly, for being used by a corporation seeking publicity; covertly, for speaking out of turn. But he has not softened his point since. Last month, Woods announced that he and his sponsors were establishing a Tiger Woods Foundation to run city golf clinics for young black players. Echoing Bill Clinton, he began to say in public that he wanted the sport to "look like America". A lot is hanging from that smooth, sweet swing.

AT FIRST, Pebble Beach seemed a genteel arena for it. If California is a privileged slice of America, and the state's Central Coast of cypresses and perpetual spring is a lucky strip within that, then the Monterey Peninsula, on whose wave-lapped underside Pebble Beach perches, is the most utopian enclave of all. This being wealthy America, it is a particular kind of utopia: with gatehouses, to keep out the Mexican farmworkers from the dusty artichoke fields inland, and only two approach roads. Vast houses splay out among the fairways, a reminder that golf is as much a branch of property services as sport. Pebble Beach residences cost an average of pounds 350,000 each.

Bing Crosby brought the golf tournament here in 1947, as an excuse for his celebrity and other friends to play with wintering professionals. It has not changed a great deal since. Two days before this year's start, with the holes waterlogged by weeks of exceptional rain, a helicopter was spotted flying over the greens and drying them with its rotor blades. Clint Eastwood was the pilot.

Tiger Woods was scheduled to play with Kevin Costner. For as long as possible, Woods stayed away, practising in Arizona where the courses were drier and less patrolled by autograph hunters. Pebble Beach waited: limousines slid to the airport, journalists ate prosciutto in the press tent, teenagers in police uniforms closed off roads with portable white picket fences. Then, midway through a blazing Tuesday afternoon, a big boxy van with dark windows bumped against the kerb outside the interview room.

When Woods walked in, the reporters virtually applauded. "Tiger! How ya doin'?" "Congratulations about Phoenix" - his small, delicate head bobbed through the greetings. The first question was: "Do you worry about all the attention?" Woods held his microphone like a talkshow host, and said, "I can get away from it on the holes, by playing." He spoke in a light but flat voice, hands gently moulding the air, or tapping the arms of his chair at rare, more awkward questions. Kevin Costner was "Cos"; Woods had "at least another 20, 30 yards in my swing"; his buddies from Stanford had come down, to eat pizza with him and drink beers - he grinned, suddenly very young - in the evenings. Woods is represented by IMG, the world's most prominent celebrity managers; he answered each question in the smallest polite number of words. Was golf, someone asked indirectly, basically racist? "America is a melting pot," he began, "and golf has problems allowing..." He took a breath. "... Other ethnic groups to play." He looked up for the next question.

Afterwards, as Woods practised behind the press tent, a succession of older players and local names were brought over to meet him. They smiled and sucked in their stomachs. Woods grinned back and said, "Pleased to meet you," but he did not really see them. He was missing his putts. Then the sun was gone and his van was waiting. Woods put his head down and brushed through a thicket of thrust-out programmes. In 30 seconds he was in his seat. Yet the door wouldn't close: they were pushing pens through the hinges. Woods stared straight ahead; the fans were peeled off. But as the van swung away, a woman holding an unsigned exercise book had something to say: "I'm glad you lost in Phoenix."

FOR the first two days at Pebble Beach, he did the same. The smack of that opening drive on the first fairway soon faded. Woods strode down the hill, the trampled flowerbeds behind him, the crowd rolling in waves to either side, past Costner's ball to where his own lay, 50 yards further on. A few minutes later, it was in the hole, a shot better than par. Then Woods's game started slipping. Spectators at his back, almost touching him with their camera flashes, Tiger pushed his putt at the rim of the next hole, where it caught metal, swung round, and trickled back the way it had come. He stomped to the edge of the green and thumped the grass with his putter.

The pattern was set: Woods would let himself get annoyed. The soaking grass slowing his strokes, the trees making the fans' talk reverberate, the distracting wash of their flashes on the greens - all these stiffened his arm-swinging cool. From the tees, he promised everything, with great drives singing out one after another, whoops and cheers from all around. At the flags, Woods's chances dribbled away in near silence. Even Costner, just a useful amateur, seemed to be playing better. He loved the crowd too: throwing them balls and dry quips, melting the women with his sagging farmboy smile. He had been famous longer than Woods had been adult, probably lived for this contact. Right now, Woods, with a schoolboy sulk seeping into his soft features, wished he could play in front of no one at all.

"They're taking pictures while you're swinging, which is wrong. Flash photography is absolutely ridiculous while you're playing. A lot of people want that one shot - unfortunately they forget that there are professionals out there trying to make their living." Woods's irritation fizzed around the interview room; after the opening two days of the tournament he was a dozen shots behind the leaders. "A lot of people are being inconsiderate. They're interrupting the golf shot. They're stopping me executing the golf shot."

His mantra sounded adolescent: the prodigy panicked, rather than energised. While he kept skewing his shots - and ejection from the second half of the tournament threatened, for the first time in his professional career - the Pebble Beach car parks were filling. Special coaches of spectators were trundling in from Monterey. These were Tiger fans, not purists. They were impatient for his success. After each missed putt they rushed to his next tee, not bothering to watch Woods finish the hole.

Golf is littered with spent prodigies, ground down by the expectations of long, public afternoons. The game seems simple to them at first. Woods started as soon as he could hold a club, pushed into his hands by his father, Earl Woods, in their backyard in Cypress, east Los Angeles. Earl was an amateur golfer and lieutenant colonel in the Green Berets with plans for his offspring. Earl had fought twice in Vietnam, and soon after his son was born, in 1975, Earl renamed him: the infant Eldrick became Tiger, in honour of an old South Vietnamese comrade called Nguyen "Tiger" Phong. Earl soon had Tiger out on the local military courses. At five, with a little cheating on the tees, he finished off nine holes in 48 shots, respectable for an adult. A television documentary was made about him.

Woods's talent did not, however, ensure universal respect. On his first day at kindergarten, older white children tied him to a tree. He soon learnt about "the look", the glancing distaste he got from some white course officials; the Nike advertisement began here. But Woods kept playing. At eight, he became club champion - against all-comers - at a short course near Los Angeles. By 14, he was winning junior titles annually. His mother Kultida, from a wealthy Thai family, pushed him as much as Earl, passing on her Buddhism for inner calm on screaming fairways to come.

As an adult, Woods has known little else. He lives in a golf resort in Florida. In 1994 he went to Stanford to read economics, but everyone knew what he was really studying. What else did he do there? "Hang out with my buddies", "Eat pizza" - Woods says nothing else. After his second, irritable press conference at Pebble Beach, he walked straight into his buddies outside the interview room. There were five of them, sensible- haired and sturdy, cheeks as red as their Stanford sweatshirts. They slapped palms, and crowded round, blocking out the steaming sidewalk of fans and photographers. For a couple of minutes, Woods's smile unfurled. They were going to meet for beers and cheeseburgers, tonight; it was already five. Woods lost his glaze; he was just another lazy-shouldered, lanky kid. Except that, after he got back in his van, his friends seemed slightly too bright-eyed about being fitted in for an evening.

HE SQUEEZED into the third round. His first two had taken 70 and 72 shots respectively, while other players had been managing mid-60s. The local papers, after draping Tiger's lean profile across their pages in defiance of his hooks and blunders, finally accepted the need to cover someone else. A beaky white boy called Jim Furyk was leading the tournament. His swing was a lunge, his trousers baggy as a clown's, and by the early holes on the third day the odd Tiger fan was sneaking over to have a look at him.

Then Woods woke up. It began on the furthest tip of the Pebble Beach course, a finger of three holes poking out into the endless Pacific. His army lined up along the clifftops. Two yachts breezed into the bay. The theatre was there, and Woods finally played to it, racing round the holes like a pinball: three birdies. Offshore, a waterspout appeared. "The whales are watching Tiger," said someone in the crowd, straight-faced.

By the afternoon, Woods was charging. He hit a flag from the tee. He sneaked in putts. He walked faster, and slid out his driver like a conjuror. And around him the crowd shouted, stretched and clotted, grew. "He's burning this course up!" said a black man, with a dreamy smile. For the first time in the tournament, the crowd was changing colour: here and there, in twos and threes, with lawyer's cigars or street-fat trainers, African- Americans were following Tiger. They chuckled with a private glee.

Golf is a word-of-mouth game. News of spectacular shots and sudden surges is carried round a course by roars, whispers, scoreboard flashes. On the last day, Woods's army swelled so large that other holes were blocked, other players' rounds slowed - his presence magnified to intimidation. He was still seven shots behind the leader at the start, but his impetus from the third round - a 63, one off the course record - rolled on. The deficit shrank to three shots, then two. As the eighth hole disappeared in a whirl of daring strokes, flirting with the edge of the ocean, something new about Woods became apparent. He had put his red shirt on.

He was hard to see at all now: 30 photographers and a trio of black-clad women, claiming to be "Security" but with cameras of their own, trailed Woods inside the fairway ropes. People in the crowd were standing on step ladders, as if they were taking photos for tabloids. This was stadium golf, the action shrunk to a stick-figure horizon, interpreted via the reactions of those at the front. Inevitably, it came down to the last hole. Woods had made birdies on the 15th, 16th and 17th, but here, on the seaside sweep of the 18th, he was still one shot behind. The crowd trampled straight across the gardens of the mansions.

In two scything blurs Woods was on the green. The hole was supposed to take five shots. If he could get it in three, he would force a play-off, and everyone knew what would happen then. But the putt was a long one; Woods paced and measured, the sun on his back. Then he stood, very erect, and missed it. His face collapsed.

The tournament went to a puffy-cheeked veteran called Mark O'Meara, who had already won it four times. His amateur partner, neatly, was the chairman of AT&T, the sponsors. "I didn't execute," Woods said afterwards, the glaze resetting on his wide liquid eyes. The next day he flew to Thailand and won by 10 shots. !