Terrifying destiny of Tiger Woods

He is a marketing man's dream. Rupert Cornwell on golf's black phenomenon
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Let the planet beware. America, that unrivalled manufacturer of sporting achievement, hype and legend is launching its latest sensation into global orbit - and this time in a game, unlike baseball or American football, that the rest of the world actually plays and follows avidly.

Last Sunday, at just his fifth attempt, the 20-year-old Tiger Woods won his first professional golf tournament, the Las Vegas Invitational. Now Tiger Woods is not just any rookie who gets lucky early on. For one thing, he is black. Moreover, he is by common consent the most exciting player to emerge on the US circuit since a flaxen-haired prodigy from Ohio State University named Jack Nicklaus won the US Open in 1962, his own first year on the tour.

On August 27, two days after securing an unprecedented third consecutive US amateur title, Woods formally abandoned his studies at Stanford University, California, and turned pro. At his first attempt he finished 60th, at his second sixth, then fifth, third and now first. A win and three top- 10 finishes is decent enough reward for most professional golfers in an entire year. Woods did it in his first six weeks. In the process he has earned $437,194 (pounds 282,000) an automatic two-year exemption, and a fame that could one day catapult him into the stratosphere of sporting celebrity.

Unlike the spectacular but self-destructive John Daly, the last rookie to set the golf world on fire when he won the US PGA championship in 1991 as a last-minute invitee, manifest destiny is wrapped around Tiger Woods. Since he was a babe in arms, he has been groomed for his sport. So, of course, have hundreds and thousands of other infants similarly the apple of their parents' eye. In this case, however, the process worked.

"He has the most fundamentally sound golf swing for anybody his age who has ever played. He has unbelievable power and he has touch. He thinks clearly, has tremendous poise, tremendous focus and tremendous competitive instincts. I don't think there's anything he can't do in this game." That is not a sponsor's blurb, or psychological warfare from an underdog opponent, but the considered judgement of the Golden Bear himself, delivered after a practice round with Woods at the Masters last April.

Not only was the youngster outdriving Daly. His technique was superior, and his temperament solid as a rock. After consultation in the Augusta clubhouse with the old lion Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus upped the ante further: young Tiger could win more Masters than he and Palmer combined. In other words, more than 10. Nick Faldo, by comparison, has three. All poor Tiger must do now is live up to expectations.

The combination of pressures - of fame, race and money - that he will face is terrifying. Woods is a black man practising an overwhelmingly white sport. There is only one other black golfer on the PGA tour, whose stars are mostly God-fearing Republicans from the segregated and conservative white suburbs of Anywhere USA. And assuming he fulfils even a portion of his promise, what sort of role model will he be ? Surely not a ghetto hero a la Jordan. "Be like Tiger" and spend hours working on your short game - that doesn't ring quite right. More likely, he will be a "feelgood" figure, to sport much as Colin Powell is to contemporary US politics, the unthreatening black who soothes white consciences, whose success permits other injustices to be forgotten.

Woods would no more buy that thesis than Powell. Both want to excel, not just to be the best black at their chosen trade, but the best, period. And the golfer would additionally point out he is only half black. Though his father Earl, a retired army lieutenant colonel and Green Beret in Vietnam, is Afro-American, his mother Kultida is Thai. Tell that however to the marketing men. Even before his first drive as a pro (a 336-yard smash that bisected the first fairway at the Greater Milwaukee Open on August 29) Woods had signed a $40m endorsement contract with Nike, and made ads in which he said there were still courses in the US he could not play "because of the colour of my skin."

And quite apart from his race, there is his name. Tiger was so christened in honour of a Vietnamese colleague of his father; but as a brand name for a new line in golf goods it was surely bestowed by the Almighty. So, for that matter, was his articulateness, and a 240-watt smile enough to light up a golf course by itself.

Such is his drawing power that organisers of the forthcoming Australian Open are said to be paying him $190,000 in appearance money, $40,000 more than Down Under's own Greg Norman, the top-ranked golfer in the world. Normally the US amateur championship has little more appeal than a final trials eliminator in the coxless fours. This year, Woods' clinching of a third title drew a TV audience twice as large as watched the simultaneously broadcast final round of the World Series of Golf, won by the left-hander Phil Mickelson, one of golf's most attractive young pretenders, with Norman in contention.

But what of the inevitable lean streaks, indeed lean years? Woods is never satisfied by less than victory and he has started out like an angel, but might not failure summon demons he now does not even know ?

And golf's corporate backers demand good behaviour in return for their money. Three weeks ago Woods abruptly withdrew from what would have been his fifth pro event, the Buick Classic, insisting that he was emotionally and mentally drained. His new tour colleagues, already jealous enough of the newcomer's fame and fortune, publicly seethed. "I guess once he made his money, it's got to be a letdown," Davis Love III was quoted as saying. The old warhorse Lee Trevino was hardly less brutal: "They compare Tiger Woods to Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. But Palmer and Nicklaus would never have done what he did at the Buick."

But last weekend Woods secured the sweetest of vindication, defeating Love in the sudden death play-off in Las Vegas. "He played a heck of a round when he had to," said Love of his opponent's final 8-under-par 64 that lifted him into a tie for the lead, "And you can't postpone the inevitable, I'm happy for him." Translated, those words amount to a rush of common sense: "Tiger is going to clean up," Love might have added on behalf of his colleagues, "but it's fantastic for golf." And indeed it is. Tiger Woods is not going to collect a winner's cheque every Sunday. But his presence means greater public interest, bigger audiences, more TV money, richer sponsorship, more lucrative franchising deals - in short more money for everyone in the sport. Unless, of course, he implodes. More probably, however, last Sunday was only the start. Just ask Jack Nicklaus.