THE GALLERY, THREE AND FOUR spectators deep, stretched the entire 447 yards of the first fairway of the Brown Deer Park Golf Course, gathered as if for a coronation. And Tiger Woods, whose professional debut on Aug. 29 endowed the hitherto uncelebrated Greater Milwaukee Open with a touch of the excitement of the Masters, did not disappoint. The 20-year-old U.S. Amateur champion smacked his first drive 336 yards down the fairway—about 60 yards farther than fellow competitors Jeff Hart and John Elliott. “The first tee shot, just ripping it with a nice draw right up the middle,” Woods reflected later, “that was nice.”
Indeed it was. But it was just one of many nice things happening to Woods lately. Two weeks ago he won a record third straight U.S. Amateur title, and the day before he teed off in Milwaukee, he agreed to a reported five-year, $40-50 million endorsement deal with Nike. And for icing, in the fourth round at Milwaukee—where he shot a 7 under par 277, earning his first prize-money paycheck, $2,544—the 6’2″ rookie stroked a hole in one.
It was, in many respects, the most anticipated start to a pro career since Jack Nicklaus came roaring onto the tour in 1962. Woods, however, sees his debut from a broader perspective. Observing that prior to 1990 the PGA held events at country clubs that excluded African-Americans—and that there is just one black, Jim Thorpe, currently on the tour—Woods told the press, “That’s not the future of the game.” In fact his father, Earl, hoping to shape that future, recently launched the National Minority Golf Foundation. “What our organization is trying to do,” said the younger Woods, “is to show kids that there is a new way out of the inner city, out of poverty. There’s a great sport called golf.”
A child neither of poverty nor the inner city, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods grew up in Cypress, Calif., 35 miles southeast of L.A. Earl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, and his wife, Kultida, a native of Thailand, nicknamed their only child after a buddy of Earl’s from Vietnam, where he’d served two tours as a Green Beret. Earl makes no bones about it: He raised his kid to be a golf prodigy. By age 3, or so the story goes, Tiger was shooting 48 for nine holes—and outputting Bob Hope before a national TV audience on The Mike Douglas Show. Four years later, Earl began his son’s golf education in earnest. For example, when a lofted shot was called for, Earl would stand in front of Tiger and say, “I’m a tree,” forcing the boy to hit the ball over him. “I wanted to make sure he’d never run into anybody who was tougher mentally than he was,” Earl told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in 1995.
Earl’s plan seemed to work. By his teens, Tiger had played with such legends as Nicklaus and Sam Snead. He was the first male ever to win three U.S. Junior Amateurs, the first to win three consecutive U.S. Amateurs—and the first black champion of these tournaments. “See,” said Earl to SI, “this is the first black intuitive golfer ever raised in the United States. Before, black kids grew up with basketball or football or baseball from the time they could walk. The game became part of them from the beginning. But they always learned golf too late. Not Tiger. Tiger knew how to swing a golf club before he could walk.”
With other sports prodigies, such tutoring has been a formula for burnout, but not in Woods’s case. “Tiger is the best athlete I’ve ever known in his sport,” says Wally Goodwin, a golf coach with 40 years at Stanford, where Woods would have been a junior this year had he not turned pro. “But he is a better kid than he is a player, and I mean that.”
His former teammates at Stanford would concur. “We always had a great time on the driving range,” says one, Eri Crum, 20. “There was a dormitory called the Suites, and Woods’s big trick was to pull out his driver and hit big slices over Suites and back onto the driving range.” Tricks won’t help Woods over the next six weeks, of course, as he tries to earn his way onto next year’s PGA tour by winning about $150,000 in five tournaments. “He’s going to have to prove he can play with these guys,” says touring pro Jim Thorpe. “We aren’t going to lay down and let him win.”
Kultida Woods, meanwhile, is thrilled to see Tiger enter the adult world. “It’s like when you see that first step or see him go away to college,” says Kultida. “I realize, like any other mother, he’s not a baby now.”
Maybe so. But when Woods arrived at the tournament registration desk in Milwaukee, he realized he didn’t have enough cash to cover the entry fee. So, on his first full day as a multimillionaire, he did what any other 20-year-old would do: He turned to his dad. Earl then ponied up the $100 that may have begun a bright new chapter in golf’s august history.
CATHY BREITENBUCHER in Milwaukee and PENELOPE ROWLANDS at Stanford