With those soft hands and the stomach of an assassin, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods has fended off yet another challenge. Now he has nowhere to go but into deep thought.
On Sunday, the most heralded collegiate golfer since Jack Nicklaus did what neither the Golden Bear nor Bobby Jones could accomplish. Woods won his third consecutive U.S. Amateur Championship.
The 20-year-old Stanford University junior will pack his magic wands and begin play Thursday in the Greater Milwaukee Open on a sponsor’s exemption. He will follow that with a trip to Coal Valley, Ill., and the Quad Cities Classic.
But after that, Woods says he shall return to school, which ranks below family and above golf in this prodigy’s pecking order. Woods’ itinerary does not change, only the crescendo of entreaties that he grasp his destiny and turn professional, lest he become indifferent, stale or whatever.
The pressure on Woods to earn a fortune sooner and a diploma later only will increase with his virtuoso performance Sunday, when he was five holes down to Steve Scott after their morning round of match play in Cornelius, Ore.
Deep into their afternoon final, Scott, a fiery University of Florida sophomore, still led by two holes with three holes remaining. Woods promptly birdied Nos. 16 and 17 to square the competition, then beat Scott on the second extra hole, the 38th of their marathon.
Woods’ rally Sunday was reminiscent of his first U.S. Amateur triumph in 1994, when he stormed from a 4-down predicament to stun Trip Kuehne. However, well before then, perhaps since Woods won the U.S. Junior Amateur at the record age of 15, he has been pegged as golf’s next superstar.
The fact that he is a minority - father Earl is African-American, mother Kultida is Thai - enhances Tiger’s appeal beyond the ropes. Phil Knight, founder of Portland-based Nike, was an interested galleryite at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club. International Management Group, a giant in the industry of representing athletes, put Earl on the payroll long ago.
What’s most distinctive about Tiger, however, is his game, a polished ensemble of poise, brute strength and amenities of a veteran. His length is staggering. During practice rounds with big knockers Greg Norman and Fred Couples at the Masters, Woods out-hit both. His driving statistics exceeded those of John Daly, who swings from the heels.
Woods’ ability to compress golf courses has not produced optimistic results during cameo PGA Tour appearances. He has entered 16 events and made only seven cuts. His best finish was a tie for 22nd at the British Open last month. His pro scoring average is a dismal 73.79. By comparison, Paul Azinger’s 71.13 landed him with a thud in 100th place on the 1995 money list with $182,595.
Woods, forever probed about his next move, has indicated a polite respect for the depth of talent on the PGA Tour. He doesn’t wish to be there just to be mediocre. But these apprehensions seem to be his alone. Observant pros figure the future is now.
Certainly, less-gifted college athletes have fast-forwarded their schedules to join professional football or basketball leagues, and Tiger needn’t fret about the likelihood of a career-threatening injury in golf. His enemy might be boredom or impatience, but he rarely cites either when repeating his goal of a complete education.
Whichever path Woods chooses, he can’t lose. Should he happen to win at Milwaukee or Quad Cities - strategic stops because Stanford starts soon and so does fishing season for many top golfers - he might just join the masses and decide it’s time.
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