April 28, 1997 12:00 PM

HE MAY BE “THE MAN,” BUT THERE’S still a lot of kid in 21-year-old Tiger Woods. The night before he ushered in a new era in golf—his own—Woods was turning his otherworldly focus on yet another passion: Mortal Kombat. With the final round of the 61st Masters just hours away, Woods relaxed with some buddies in a rented house near Georgia’s Augusta National Golf Course and played his favorite video game late into the night. He also took a couple of turns at the Ping-Pong table and even thought about shooting hoops until his personal golf coach Butch Harmon laid down the law. “I told him, ‘No basketball,’ ” says Harmon, 53. “I didn’t want him to jam a finger.”

Not that anything as trivial as a finger was likely to stop Tiger Woods, who went out the next day and finished what he had started, blowing away the all-star Masters field with a stunning 270—18 under par for 72 holes on one of the world’s most difficult courses—and in the process pulling off the impossible: exceeding the thunderous hype that preceded him. When all the dazzling smiles, soaring drives and moments of preternatural poise were over, Woods had bested by one stroke the previous tournament record, set in 1965 by Jack Nicklaus, golf’s outgoing deity. “He was phenomenal,” marveled 1996’s top golfer Tom Lehman, who finished 17 strokes behind Woods. “He threw down the gauntlet and said, ‘This is golf in the 21st century’ ”

Woods also became the youngest player ever to win the Masters and the first African-American (or Asian-American) to win any of golf’s four major tournaments, a particularly meaningful achievement at Augusta National, a club that did not have a single black member until 1990. Lee Elder, the first black golfer to play the Masters, in 1975, recalls that his time on the course was a lot less pleasant than Woods’s. “You’d walk through the crowds and hear, ‘He shouldn’t be here,’ ” says Elder, 62, who shared a hug with Tiger after his victory. “It made me feel wonderful watching him win. We needed it to get rid of all those ghosts hanging in those trees.”

That Woods won his first major at Augusta was significant. That he won it in such commanding style was nothing short of magical. Picked as a favorite in only his 15th tournament since turning pro last August, Woods could have buckled under the burden of expectations, particularly given his concern over the health of his father, Earl Woods, 65, who had recently undergone bypass surgery. “Thursday morning was the most nervous I’ve ever seen Tiger,” says Harmon, who watched as Woods shot an unnerving four over par on his first nine holes. But Woods quickly shook off his jitters and started booming his trademark 320-yard drives. More impressively he wasn’t rattled by huge galleries of spectators offering high fives and high-volume encouragement. “Everything he did was perfect,” says Harmon. “He put it all together.”

After calmly sinking a four-foot putt for par on the final hole to ensure his record victory, Woods strode off the 18th green and hugged his father and his mother, Kultida, 53. Woods flashed his widest smile as he slipped into a size 42-long green jacket, the storied prize awarded to Masters champions, which Tiger had coveted since he was 5. Following the annual champions dinner, Woods joined 15 friends and family members for a party at his rented home late Sunday night. “There was a lot of champagne, a lot of hugging and a lot of toasts,” says a friend.

Woods also fielded a congratulatory telephone call from the First Golf Nut, President Clinton, who told him, Woods said later, that “the best shot he saw all week was the shot of me hugging my dad.” But Tiger turned down Clinton’s offer to be his guest at last Tuesday’s Mets-Dodgers baseball game honoring Jackie Robinson. Nothing personal. It was just that Woods was jetting off for a vacation (reportedly in Cancún, Mexico) that same day. But before he left, Woods showed up at the grand openings of two All-Star Sports Cafes. An investor in the chain, along with baseball’s Ken Griffey Jr., tennis’s Monica Seles and others, Woods was mobbed by throngs of fans on hand for ribbon-cuttings in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Atlantic City. “It was like being with Elvis,” All-Star investor Luke Perry told the New York Post. “No, it was more like being with Moses.”

A fitting analogy for Woods, once referred to by his father as “the Chosen One.” Earl Woods, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and Green Beret, and his second wife, Kultida, whom he met during the Vietnam war in her native Thailand, wasted little time in turning their only son on to golf. They propped 6-month-old Eldrick Woods in a high chair so he could watch his dad hit balls into a net in the garage of their three-bedroom home in Cypress, Calif. By the time he was 2, Tiger was good enough to outputt Bob Hope on The Mike Douglas Show.

When Woods was 11, Earl put him through a six-month boot camp to instill mental toughness. “Prisoner-of-war interrogation techniques, psychological intimidation—it went on and on,” says Earl. “It was brutal.” Meanwhile, Woods’s mother was teaching him the spiritual tenets of Buddhism. Their methods paid off in 1991, when Woods won the first of three consecutive U.S. Junior Amateur titles, followed by three straight U.S. Amateur championships—both unprecedented feats. “I was in awe of Tiger’s raw power and natural ability,” says Harmon, who was hired to help him refine his swing in 1993, a year before Woods enrolled at Stanford University (he dropped out after his sophomore year to turn pro). “I thought, ‘Look at that smile, look at that charisma. My gosh, he can really be something.’ ”

That proved to be yet another prophecy fulfilled by Woods, whose first pro win was at the Las Vegas Invitational last October (he has won five of his first 15 events). Woods’s secret, besides superhuman length off the tee, is “attitude,” says veteran caddy Mike “Fluff” Cowan, 49, Woods’s bag carrier since October. “He’s quite focused on what he wants to do.”

And that includes crafting an industry around his singular appeal. In addition to the reported $60 million in endorsement deals he signed with Nike and Titleist last year, Woods and his handlers at the International Management Group are working on a line of golf clubs, a line of Nike sportswear and sneakers, even a line of luxury watches—not to mention a $2.2 million deal with Warner Books. How long can it be before Woods is starring in a movie alongside Bugs Bunny?

The only thing he’s not likely to do is rest on his laurels. Though Woods is relishing his newfound wealth—he’ll now be traveling from his home in Orlando to golf tournaments in a new Cessna jet he co-owns—he knows enough not to neglect his precious gift. On the evening before the Masters’ final round, Woods was out whacking golf balls on the practice range, even though his grip on the green jacket seemed unshakable. “It’s not over yet,” Woods explained to fellow pro Davis Love III. Said Love: “The only thing you have to practice is right arm goes in the right sleeve, left arm goes in the left sleeve.”

Sound advice for someone who could own a rack of green jackets before he turns 30. “Tiger has a tremendous desire to be better than anyone, ever, on the planet,” says Harmon. “And he’s only going to get better. That’s hard to believe after what he did at the Masters, but he still has a lot of room for improvement.”

ALEX TRESNIOWSKI

LAUREL BRUBAKER CALKINS in Houston, TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles, DON SIDER and MARISA SALCINES in Miami and GAIL WESCOTT in Hilton Head, S. C.

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