Shadow of the Tiger

As the European tour tees off this week the real challenge will be living with the game's most exciting phenomenon
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The Independent Online
IT WAS ironic that in the week Kevin Keegan relinquished the task of delivering his disciples into the promised land, to concentrate on reducing his handicap, golf should find its own messiah. Tiger Woods has arrived.

The statistics are bewildering enough, but the manner of his arrival has been staggering. Woods did not just beat the best player of 1996, Tom Lehman, at the Mercedes Championship last Sunday. The 21-year- old golfer, formerly known as Eldrick, lived up to his mother's pre-publicity: "My Tiger is a showman."

With Lehman in the water at their par-three play-off hole, Woods declined the safe option and almost holed his six-iron shot. It took everyone's breath away, including the seasoned pros, who now have to figure out how to tackle the young pretender each week.

There were plenty of pundits willing to take the Alan Hansen "you win nothing with kids" line when Woods turned professional last August and stated that it was his intention to "win every tournament I play". Now they are suggesting: "This kid could win everything."

Only Gene Sarazen and Horton Smith won three times in America at a younger age. Woods has passed $1m in earnings on the US Tour in just nine events. It took Jack Nicklaus nine years. That was in a different era, both financially and in golfing terms. The age of the dominant player was meant to be long since dead. World golf is just too competitive these days.

At the height of his powers, Nicklaus won 22 per cent of the tournaments he played in. Greg Norman, the world No 1 for more than half of the last decade, averages just one win a season in 16 years playing in America. With $43m in the bank from Nike and Titleist, his Tour card secure, Woods has no other goals than winning each event he plays. There is the Ryder Cup team, of course, but he is already up to seventh on the American qualifying list. Woods will be at Valderrama in September.

What is a problem for Woods is deciding where to play. Every tournament wants the phenomenon. Mike Milthorpe, the tournament director of this week's Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, said last year: "The biggest thing for me is, if I don't get him to play, all I'm going to hear is, 'Why isn't he here?' He is worth a minimum of 5,000 tickets a day."

It is part of Tiger folklore that he appeared on American television aged four chipping marshmallows into the mouths of Jimmy Stewart and Bob Hope. Last month Hope tried to phone Woods personally to get him to play in his tournament. To no avail. "Tiger will play a normal schedule," said Earl Woods, 64, president of ETW Inc. "If he played every week, some people would say he's playing too much, trying to hog it all."

The Woods schedule is still shrouded in mystery, although he will go to Thailand, his mother's birthplace, next month. When will he hit Europe? As a client of the International Management Group, he is almost certain to appear at the IMG-run Toyota World Match Play and the Alfred Dunhill Cup. The next best bet is the Loch Lomond World Invitational, the week before the Open and due to offer a rise on its pounds 750,000 1996 purse. "We would do backflips if Tiger played," said Neil Hobday of Carnegie Sports. "He is a phenomenal crowd-puller. But we know that he is in demand and will only have five or six releases from the US Tour. As we are the week before the Open, we are hopeful he will recognise the quality of the course and the prize money that we can offer."

In a reranking of Golf Digest's most powerful men in golf, Woods has gone straight in at No 3, behind Tim Finchem, the US Tour commissioner, and the USGA's David Fay and ahead of IMG's Mark McCormack and Nicklaus. Earl Woods is ranked 27th. Tigermania has hit America just as golf is booming in the country. Everyone from President Clinton down plays and Kevin Costner's film Tin Cup, though more of a romance than an instructional guide to winning the US Open, was a smash hit. In Britain the game's image suffered from the Burhill incident, when a 13-year-old boy was banned from a "parent and child" competition because he was adopted, and just as some of the established stars started to wane, the European Tour was hit by the Collingtree Park greens saga.

It cannot be allowed to happen again and rather than putting their feet up at the end of a long season, the Tour's five hard-working tournament directors were flying around the world checking and rechecking the venues. Despite the absence of one T Woods, and the fact that the destination is Australia, the Tour tees off with a quality field for the Johnnie Walker Classic containing Faldo, Els, Fred Couples, John Daly, the four-time Order of Merit winner Colin Montgomerie, Bernhard Langer and defending champion Ian Woosnam.

Whether Faldo can haul himself into the top 10 of the Johnnie Walker Ryder Cup points list from a minimal European schedule probably depends on him winning a major. Otherwise he will claim one of Seve Ballesteros's two wild cards. And unless, by some miracle, Ballesteros can qualify and give himself another pick by rejecting the impossible playing captain role, Seve will only have two choices so he might as well stop moaning and get on with it.

The present table, after eight events and a quarter of the way through the qualifying process, has a makeshift look but it will be a sign of strength if some of the young talents that are beginning to emerge make the team for Valderrama. A return for the one-cap wonders Paul Broadhurst and Peter Baker would be welcome. The fortunes of the European Tour are inextricably linked to the Ryder Cup and that week our golfers will face the same challenge as the US golfers have to every week. Beating Tiger Woods.

Tiger cubs? Five young players with the Ryder Cup on their mind

Thomas Bjorn

AT PRESENT second on the qualifying table after his Loch Lomond World Invitational victory. Denmark's best-ever player, the 25-year-old won four times on the Challenge Tour in '95 and was last year's top rookie, finishing 10th in the rankings. Has been told by Seve Ballesteros to forget about playing in America and to concentrate on earning a place on the Ryder Cup team. Joint 20th at last October's Volvo Masters at Valderrama.

Darren Clarke

THE Portrush man ended a three-year wait for his second tour title at the German Masters in October. Fourth on qualifying list and probably more than half way to the points total he needs to make the team. Clarke, 28, just missed out on a place in the '95 team after finishing 14th. Has been shedding pounds in the gym over the winter, even working out on New Year's Day. Second to Colin Montgomerie at Valderrama in '93.

Andrew Coltart

YET to win on tour, though lost play-off to Ian Woosnam in last year's Johnnie Walker Classic. Despite that the 25-year-old Scot finished seventh on the '96 money list, a place below Westwood and one above Clarke. At present 15th on the Ryder Cup list. A Walker Cup player in '91, he has represented Scotland with distinction at the Alfred Dunhill Cup, winning 8 of 11 matches. Best result of 19th at Valderrama in '95.

Padraig Harrington

TURNED pro a year ago with an accountancy degree and a wealth of matchplay experience - three Walker Cup teams between '91 and '95. The 25-year- old Dubliner won the Peugeot Spanish Open but narrowly lost out in the Rookie of the Year to Bjorn after finishing 11th on the money list. Must build on his impressive debut season to climb from 19th on the qualifying table. Finished 29th in his first Volvo Masters.

Lee Westwood

YOUNG, strong and fearless. The fact that the 23-year-old from Worksop plays most weeks on tour should see him convert his present position of 11th in the table into a top-10 berth. Followed maiden victory in Sweden with an end-of-season win in Japan. Will make his debut at the US Masters, as well as the US Open and USPGA which are all counting events. Joint runner-up to Mark McNulty at Valderrama in October.

European Tour intinerary

January: 23-26 Johnnie Walker Classic (Hope Island, Queensland); 30-2 Feb Heineken Classic (The Vines, Perth).

February: 6-9 South African Open (Glendower, Johannesburg); 13-16 Dimension Data (Sun City); 20-23 Alfred Dunhill South African PGA championship (Houghton, Johannesburg); 27-2 Mar Dubai Desert Classic (Emirates Club, Dubai).

March: 6-9 Moroccan Open (Rabat); 13-16 Portuguese Open (Aroeira); 20- 23 Turespana Masters Maspalomas); 27-30 Madeira Island Open (Campo de Golfe).

April: 3-6 To be announced; 10-13 US MASTERS (Augusta, Georgia);17-20 TBA; 24-27 Peugeot Spanish Open (La Moraleja 2, Madrid).

May: 1-4 Italian Open (Garda Golf, Milan); 8-11 Benson and Hedges International Open (The Oxfordshire, Thame); 15-18 Alamo English Open (Hanbury Manor);19- 20 Andersen Consulting European Championship (The Buckinghamshire); 23- 26 Volvo PGA championship (Wentworth); 29-1 June Deutsche Bank Open-TPC of Europe (TBA);

June: 5-8 Slaley Hall Northumberland Challenge (Slaley Hall, Hexham); 12-15 US OPEN (Congressional, Bethesda, Maryland); 12-15 TBA; 19-22 Volvo German Open (Schloss Nippenburg, Stuttgart); 26-29 Peugeot French Open (National, Paris).

July: 3-6 Irish Open (Druids Glen, Co Wicklow); 10-12 Loch Lomond World Invitational (Loch Lomond); 17-20 OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP (Royal Troon); 24- 27 Dutch Open (Hilversumsche); 31-Aug 3 Scandinavian Masters (Malmo);

August: 7-10 Chemapol Trophy Czech Open (Prague Karlstein); 14-17 US PGA CHAMPIONSHIP (Winged Foot, New York); 14-17 TBA; 21-24 Smurfit European Open (The K Club, Dublin); 28-31 BMW International Open (Golf Platz, Munich).

September: 4-7 Canon European Masters (Crans-sur-Sierre); 11-14 Lancome Trophy (St Nom la Breteche, Paris); 18-21 One2One British Masters (Forest of Arden); 26-28 RYDER CUP by Johnnie Walker (Valderrama, Spain);

October: 2-5 Linde German Masters (Motzener See, Berlin); 9-12 *Toyota World Match Play championship (Wentworth), Open Novotel Perrier (Medoc, Bordeaux); 16-19 *Alfred Dunhill Cup (St Andrews); 23-26 Oki Pro-Am (La Moraleja 1 and 2); 30-2 Nov Volvo Masters (Monte Castillo).

November: 6-9 *Sarazen World Open (Chateau Elan, Atlanta); 20-23 *World Cup of Golf (Kiawah Island, South Carolina).

January 1998: 3-4 *Andersen Consulting World Championship (Grey Hawk, Scottsdale, Arizona)

*Denotes approved special events

To be scheduled: Air France Cannes Open, Catalan Open, Austrian Open.