Golf: So just how good is Tiger Woods?

Golf was shaken by his Masters triumph a year ago, but less stirred by his displays in the following majors. As the Tiger prepares to defend his title in Augusta next week, Andy Farrell assesses his unusual talent
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The Independent Online
IT MAY not be quite in the remember-where-you-were category of earth-shattering moments but, for the record, it was at 5.30 on the afternoon of Friday April 13 1997 that Tiger Woods took the lead in the US Masters for the first time. He did so with an eagle at the par-five 13th hole and never relinquished his lead. Nor ever will, according to some.

"I think we are all in trouble at the Masters," said Colin Montgomerie, recalling Woods' record 12-stroke victory at Augusta National last year. "If Tiger plays to 60 per cent of his ability, he's going to win again. If he putts well, he'll win."

Woods, then aged 21 and in his first major championship as a professional, caused great swathes of the Augusta record book to be rewritten: he set 20 new records, including the lowest-ever score of 18 under par, 270, and becoming the youngest winner, and tied six others.

His victory was referred to variously as "the greatest performance ever seen in a golf major", "a win for the ages" and "the tournament of the century".

Yet for someone proclaimed as the greatest golfer ever, Woods currently shares with George Archer, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam the slightly obscure distinction of making his only top-10 finish at Augusta a victory.

This question remains: did Woods play golf from another solar system last year, or just take advantage of a course that is perfectly set up for a player of his prodigious power off the tee? The scary theory is the latter but, as usual, elements of both apply.

Woods must be given credit, too, for things. Firstly, for peaking for a particular week, something only Jack Nicklaus, and to a lesser extent in recent times Nick Faldo, achieved consistently. It is a concept alien to the majority of tour players, who just hope for two or three hot weeks a year but have no idea when they might arrive, and certainly not when the expectations are as high as they were on Woods.

Secondly, Woods turned round a potentially disastrous start, taking 40, four over, to the turn on the first day, to come home in six-under 30. He played the last 63 holes in 22 under. What he managed to avoid during all four rounds was a three-putt. On Augusta's speedy and undulating greens - the flat parts measure 13 on the stimpmetre, the highest rating of the year - such a feat is the key to victory. The last four winners have had one three-putt between them.

But the key to putting well at Augusta is usually precise mid-iron play of the quality produced by Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal. Woods' advantage, thanks to his length off the tee, was that he never needed more than a seven-iron into a par four.

"You can't say it was just my putting or my driving, you have to explain it as a whole package," Woods said. "I made a lot of putts and my speed control was perfect, but the majority of my putts were uphill because I was able to control my irons into the greens. Why was I able to do that? Because I had short irons in. And that was because I drove the ball great."

"They need to put in Tiger tees," Jesper Parnevik said at the time. Augusta needed to be toughened up, was the cry. But the guardians of the Masters have resisted growing any rough or putting in extra bunkers at 320 yards.

After all, the scoring record was only broken by one shot and had stood since Nicklaus set it in 1965. Nicklaus's record, equalled by Ray Floyd in 1976, was the longest-standing scoring mark in the four majors. "You want to make it harder?" Parnevik says now. "I thought it was pretty tough."

Nor can Woods' triumph be described as the most dominant of all time. In slightly differing measures of a winner's performance versus the rest of the field, Floyd at the Masters in 1976 and Arnold Palmer at the Open Championship in 1962 come out on top. Then there was Ben Hogan's mastery in each of his triple crown victories at the Masters, US Open and the Open in 1953.

Woods never recaptured his Augusta form in the other majors, finishing 19th at the US Open, 24th at the Open and 29th at the USPGA. One win in five matches was also a poor return in the Ryder Cup at Valderrama. "Very simply, I hit the ball better at the Masters," Woods said. "You have to hit the ball well and keep the ball in play and I wasn't able to do that at the other majors."

His last win of 1997 came in July, but after seven victories in his first 10 months as a professional - the first couple of which were entailed gaining his US Tour card in the first place - Woods can be forgiven for feeling slightly burned out. He was also learning to cope with Tigermania.

Endorsements worth $100m (pounds 60m), including Nike and American Express, made Woods the most visible golfer ever. The Masters win brought controversies when he declined an invitation to join President Clinton at a Jackie Robinson memorial event and followed Fuzzy Zoeller's "fried chicken and collard greens" remarks. For his champion's dinner, Woods has included cheeseburgers, chickenburgers, fries and strawberry and vanilla shakes.

"People assume that since I've been in the spotlight for a while that I know how to handle all this but I'm still learning," Woods admitted. "The hardest part has been that the public doesn't want to hear now good I hit a five-iron.

"They want to know what I do off the course. The tabloids, some of the magazines, they've become a little intrusive. I can't do anything in public without them looking for an angle. That's been more difficult than I thought it would be. And I think that's wrong. I've had people call into radio stations saying where I was and the stations repeat it like it's fact.

"I would like the public to know me as me, but not to know what I do in my personal life. It's hard to have that balance, but that's what I want."

Impossible, more like it. Woods has stopped giving one-on-one interviews after GQ magazine repeated some of his racially insensitive jokes and his relationship with the American media has become strained. Woods added: "If somebody gets to know me, the way I see it they can write what they want. But until they get to know me, they shouldn't be taking shots."

Of course, no one gets the chance to get to know Tiger. At a day with a dozen American golf writers to try and mend some bridges last December, the bugbear of Woods only committing to tournaments on the Friday before came up. "You know, if you committed two weeks before, you'd get a better deal with the airlines," one reporter said to lighten the mood. "That's not a problem," Woods replied. "I know. It's a joke, Tiger," the reporter said.

Woods has, however, returned in 1998 better than a year ago. He has only won once, at the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand. But he has been in contention every time he has played, something he was not a year ago, apart from the Players' Championship where he had an equally low-key week 12 months ago.

"Overall, it's a better package this year," Woods said. "I am controlling my distances and flighting the ball better. It's much more consistent."

Only two men, Nicklaus in '66 and Faldo in '90, have successfully defended at Augusta, but it is something that Woods is not asked whether he expects to win this year, but whether he thinks he will break the scoring record again. "I really don't know. I'm just going to give it my all." The last line is the emphatic one: "I just want to get a victory."

How the

young Master

ranks

Tiger Woods won three of his first 10 tournaments as a professional and seven in his first 10 months.

He was Rookie of the Year in America in 1996 despite turning pro only at the end of August.

He reached $1m (pounds 600,000) in earnings on the US Tour quicker than anyone else (nine tournaments) and at a younger age (21 years and 14 days).

He won four times on the US Tour last year, becoming the first player to earn over $2m in a single season. He became the youngest player to top the world rankings in June.

This year he has finished second, third, second, ninth, 13th and 35th on the US Tour and won the Johnnie Walker Classic.

After a year and a half, he is 70th on the US Tour's career money list with $3,447,413, one place below Lee Trevino.

he banks

He is ranked sixth on the Forbes magazine list of biggest earners in sport in 1997 with $26.1m (pounds 15.6m) for the year. The next golfer on the list was Greg Norman in 11th place, one spot ahead of Arnold Palmer, 46 years Tiger's senior. He was second to table-topper Michael Jordan in endorsements alone.

He turned professional in August 1996 with contracts worth $40m (pounds 24m) from Nike and $23m (pounds 13.7m) from Titleist. Also handed $7m (pounds 4.2m) worth of stock in the All Star Cafe chain, a subsidiary of Planet Hollywood.

After the Masters he added deals with American Express and Rolex, and was recently signed up by breakfast cereal Wheaties.

In all, Woods' contracts sum to over $100m (pounds 60m). Told Hughes Horton, his manager at the International Management Group: "We're a great team because we are both the best in the world at what we do."

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