No One Tells Tiger Woods What To Do
One thing I learned from a four-hour conversation: Tiger makes almost all his own calls--for good and bad
To hear audio of John Feinstein discussing Tiger Woods, download the January issue of Golf Digest on the tablet.
The first time I laid eyes on Tiger Woods was in March 1994 at Bay Hill for Arnold Palmer's tournament. I was standing on the range on Wednesday afternoon, talking to Peter Jacobsen, Davis Love III and Billy Andrade. Billy pointed down the range at a skinny kid hitting balls. "You know who that is?" he said.
"You should know," Billy continued. "That's Tiger Woods. He's the Next One."
I did know the name. A phenom from California. In fact, his father, Earl, was already on IMG's payroll as a "junior talent scout."
I hadn't paid that much attention. My focus was on the players who were on the tour at that moment, and I tended to be skeptical about Next Ones. I still remember Brent Musburger comparing Jeff Lebo to Jerry West when Lebo was a freshman basketball player at North Carolina. I had seen what being the Next One in tennis had done to Jennifer Capriati, and I remember reading a Rick Reilly piece in Sports Illustrated years earlier on how Love and Fred Couples were the Next Ones in golf.
"I thought you and Fred were the Next Ones," I said to Love.
"Not like this kid," Love said.
I shrugged, still skeptical. A few minutes later, I walked off the range. As luck would have it, Woods was walking a few steps in front of me. As he headed, I presumed, to the first tee to play a few holes, a small cadre of maybe 15 to 20 kids standing behind the ropes pushed pieces of paper in his direction for autographs. Woods put his head down, looked in neither direction and walked past them without slowing.
Most players will stop as they leave the range on practice days. Walking to the first tee for an actual round is different. In that situation most guys will say, "After the round," or "Gotta go to work." But this was a practice day, and before Woods had become such a big star that stopping to sign autographs could turn into an all-day affair.
Watching him put his head down and keep on going, I distinctly remember thinking, Just who the hell does that kid think he is?
Of course the answer, as it turned out, was simple: He thought he was Tiger Woods.
Woods won his first U.S. Amateur that summer and played in his first Masters the next April. That was the first time--in eight attempts--that he made a cut in a professional tournament, finishing tied for 41st. Even so, when he withdrew from the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills that summer after hurting his wrist while making a swing in thick rough, I thought, Oh, yeah, Next One, all right; he's not yet 20, and he's already getting hurt.
Of course by the time he turned pro in the summer of 1996 after winning the Amateur for a third straight time, Woods had become a true phenomenon, in part because he was so good, in part because he was African-American, in part because IMG and Nike were marketing him before he hit his first tee shot as a pro in Milwaukee.
It was after the tournament in Milwaukee that I first ran afoul of Team Tiger. I had been asked by Newsweek to do a story on Tiger-mania. In the article I talked about his vast potential, about how important it was for golf to finally have an African-American star, and about how the marketing machine was already playing on his status as a minority. Remember the first Nike commercial? "Hello world... Are you ready for me?"
I also mentioned that Earl Woods had already developed a reputation in golf as a pushy father, and that his avid pursuit of publicity for himself and every dollar possible reminded some people (me) of Stefano Capriati, the father of young tennis star Jennifer Capriati. That wasn't a compliment. Earl Woods knew it, and so did his son. The Newsweek people got several angry phone calls from Hughes Norton, who was then Tiger's agent. How dare I compare Earl Woods to Stefano Capriati?
Looking back, maybe I was unfair--to Stefano.
Having gotten off to a bad start with Team Eldrick, I made things worse in the fall of 1996. After finishing tied for 60th in Milwaukee, Tiger went on a roll. He had a chance to win his third time out, in Coal Valley, Ill., but got off to a bad start Sunday and finished tied for fifth. The winner that week was Ed Fiori, a roly-poly tour lifer who was known for years as the only man to ever catch Woods from behind on a Sunday. "I should write a book called How to Beat Tiger on Sunday," he once said. "Probably sell a million copies."
Woods followed that performance with a tie for third at the B.C. Open. His goal when he turned pro was to earn enough money in seven tournaments--the maximum number a nontour member could play in one year on sponsor exemptions--to avoid going to PGA Tour Qualifying School in the fall. He had all but wrapped that up. And so, even though he had a sponsor's exemption to play the Buick Challenge the next week, he decided to go home and get some rest.