All eyes on Tiger as he enters jungle
US MASTERS: Augusta - white, middle class, elitist - could be conquered for the first time by a black American golfer. Woods, Nike's $28m wonderkid, has the talent to succeed, says Andy Farrell, who also (right) explains his driving force
Saturday 05 April 1997
Tiger Woods has made such a phenomenal impact on the sport since last summer that the pressure on him will be enormous. To win the tournament in his first year as a professional would be an extraordinary feat, yet many will be expecting it of him. Were he to do so the accomplishment would resonate way beyond the sports pages.
Woods has all the necessary ingredients. At 21, he hits the ball as far as John Daly, but straighter. He has the competitive instincts of Jack Nicklaus, coming back from five-down and two-down with three to play on his way to winning his third US Amateur final last August.
He is a showman. Having won two of his first seven professional tournaments, Woods qualified for the Mercedes Championships and in the play-off almost holed in one after Tom Lehman had gone in the water. The roar was deafening.
Woods' talent is only one reason why a victory in the Masters would make such an impact. The other is his ethnic background. His father, Earl, is an African-American who was a Green Beret in Vietnam. He nicknamed his son Tiger after a Vietnamese soldier friend. Woods' mother, Kultida, is the daughter of a wealthy Thailand family.
Of all the major American sports, golf is the one most dominated by the white middle class. If overt racism is - largely - a thing of the past there are still few black faces to be seen on the fairways or in the club- houses on the tour. And, at one time, no tournament made its discrimination clearer than the Masters, which carried all the prejudice that might be expected from a tournament staged in the deep South.
Clifford Roberts, the autocratic chairman of the club for more than 40 years, reputedly said that so long as he was in charge a black man would never play at Augusta. Until 1961, black players were not permitted to play on tour because of the infamous Caucasian rule. When Charlie Sifford was leading the Canadian Open after two rounds in 1962, officials from Augusta National sent a message saying that year's winner would not, as usual, be invited to the following year's Masters.
For the few black players on the US tour, qualifying for Augusta then became an obsession.
It nearly happened in 1968, when Lee Elder got through to a three-way play-off in the American Golf Classic. It was eventually won by Nicklaus at the fifth extra hole.
"I think I put too much pressure on myself to win," Elder said. "If I led a tournament going into the last day, or the back nine, I'd be thinking about Augusta. I wanted it so badly because I knew what Cliff Roberts was: I knew what a racist he was."
Finally, Elder won the Monsanto Open in April 1974, which meant his debut at Augusta was given almost a year's worth of build-up. When he arrived at the tournament, a black attendant welcomed him to the locker-room and said: "We've been saving this locker right here, saving it for the black that qualified for the Masters."
It was not until 1990, following the controversy at the US PGA Championship at Shoal Creek when the club's owner, Hall S Thompson, said it was "just not done in Birmingham" to admit black members, that Augusta announced their first black member - Ron Townsend, a television executive from Washington - although the then chairman, Hord Hardin, said that they had been considering the move for some time. Townsend could be joined by Woods should he win a Green Jacket as everyone, including Nicklaus, expects him to.
The week after Woods turned pro, Nike ran an ad campaign which had Woods saying: "There are still courses in the US I am not allowed to play because of the colour of my skin. Hello World. I've heard I'm not ready for you. Are you ready for me?"
The conservative golfing community was not ready for Nike's shock tactics. Club pros, mainly from the South, threatened not to stock Nike and Titleist products. The campaign was swiftly, if quietly, dropped.
Things evolve at Augusta National. It took years of campaigning by the leading players before they were allowed to bring their regular tour caddies rather than use the club's (black) caddies. In recent years, some of the faces waiting in the clubhouse have been white. Woods has played there twice as an amateur, finishing 41st in 1995 and missing the cut last year.
But in the 12 months that have followed, Woods' life has changed irrevocably. "He is the most exciting young athlete to come along since Michael [Jordan] arrived in 1984," said Phil Knight, the king of Nike, who, along with Titleist, handed Woods a $43m (pounds 26.8m) coming of age present when he turned pro last August.
"Michael said that since he's been a professional athlete he's really only had one hero - and that was Tiger Woods. I thought that was a remarkable statement."
Woods could not have made more of an impact since he chose golf as a career over the final two years of his degree course at Stanford University. His US Amateur victory was one of the highest-rated golf television programmes of the year in America - the highest was when Woods went up against John Daly in the Skins Game later in the year.
Recently, Woods was asked whether Augusta was one of the places he was referring to in the Nike ad and whether that had changed his opinion of the club. "No, it's just another tournament," he replied. "I'm going to go over there and try to win it." Asked what he would change about the course and the club, he talked about the excessive hardness of the greens, but of the club just said: "I will leave it at that."
With its closed list of season ticket holders, Augusta will miss out on part of the Woods phenomenon. Wherever he has played as a professional, crowds of a far more mixed ethnic background have turned out to see him. "I don't consider myself a Great Black Hope," Woods has said. "I'm just a golfer who happens to be black and Asian.
"It doesn't matter whether they're white, black, brown or green. All that matters is that I touch kids the way I can through clinics and they benefit from them." He will give six clinics to inner-city schoolchildren for the Tiger Woods Foundation, whose executive director, Paul Fregia, said: "We're going to change the face of golf."
There are many hurdles, not least the expense of the game, to be overcome before all the Michael Jordans will want to be Tiger Woodses instead, but Charlie Sifford, whose autobiography, Just Let Me Play, has influenced Woods, thinks it can happen. "Tiger will do something that none of the rest of us did. He's going to do something I always wanted to do but never really got the opportunity to. He's going to win a lot, and when he does there's going to be kids who notice it, and think about playing golf."
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