The first NCAA golf championship was held in 1897, so it was
somewhat newsworthy that last week's tournament at the Honors
Course, 25 miles east of Chattanooga, set an attendance record.
But before you conclude that interest in college golf is rising,
you should know that of the 14,694 tickets purchased, roughly
14,000 were bought by people who came to see if Tiger Woods of
Stanford really is the best amateur golfer to stroll down a
fairway since that fat kid, name of Nicklaus, was at Ohio State
from 1958 to '61. The answer, to use the local vernacular, was,
On each of the four days you didn't have to look long to find
Woods, the 19-year-old prodigy who has won the last two U.S.
Amateur championships. How big has Tiger become? Well, bigger
than the NCAA Championships. Instead of the usual three guards
per threesome, his group had nine until the final day, when the
number grew to 15. The NCAA, which issued 80 media credentials
for last year's championships, in which Woods tied for fifth,
passed out 225 for this one. The nightly tournament wrap-up was
faxed to 116 recipients, from ESPN's SportsCenter to Pro Golf
Discount of Birmingham. Almost everywhere Woods turned, somebody
asked him to sign a hat or a scorecard. Upon receiving Tiger's
autograph after Saturday's final round, one Southern belle said,
"Woooo, you have a famous-looking signature. Yeah, I think
you're definitely going to be famous." That made Woods grin his
million-dollar grin, which was no small accomplishment
considering how angry he was after just shooting an
uncharacteristic eight-over-par 80.
For three glorious days the course had been putty in Tiger's
hands. He opened on Wednesday with a three-under-par 69 that put
him a shot off the lead; took control in Thursday's second round
with a 67 that broke the competitive course record held by three
players, one of them a Nicklaus (Gary, not Jack); and separated
himself from the field with a 69 on Friday that gave him a
nine-shot lead heading into the final round. His play was so
sweet, so pure, so smart--he often sacrificed distance off the
tee to make sure he was on the right side of the fairway--that
some people found it amusing when Woods insisted after the third
round that the course and the field were not pushovers. "Is it
easy out there?" he said, repeating a question with a look of
incredulity. "Oh, god, no! This is not a course that you can
play aggressively. I feel good about my game, but there's still
one more day. Anything can happen."
And doggone if anything--or something or everything--didn't jump
up and bite him in Saturday's final round. After reaching the
9th tee at one under for the day, Woods lost seven strokes to
par during a five-hole stretch. He came unraveled at number 9, a
369-yard par-4 protected by water along the front of the green.
Woods hit a good drive but pushed his second shot into the
gallery on the back right side of the hole. He then attempted a
flop shot that flew on him and went into the water. Another flop
shot left him on the fringe. From there, he two-putted for a
triple-bogey 7. Woods then bogeyed 10, 11, 12 and 13. On the PGA
Tour that would be fatal 99% of the time. All it did to Woods
was cut his margin of victory to four shots (285 to 289) over
Rory Sabbatini of Arizona.
Stanford finished fourth in the team competition, 19 strokes
behind champion Arizona State but just one shot back of the
third-place finisher, East Tennessee State. The Sun Devils had a
five-shot lead after the first round, lost it to East Tennessee
State in the second round, regained the lead the third day and
survived a stiff challenge by UNLV to win by three shots. Going
into the 72nd and final hole, Arizona State and UNLV were tied
at the top, thanks to a birdie chip by UNLV's Mike Ruiz at
number 17. But the Sun Devils caught a break when Ted Oh, UNLV's
best player, hooked his tee shot into some trees on number 18
and wound up with a bogey. "I never doubted that we would win,"
said Arizona State coach Randy Lein, whose Sun Devils got off to
a slow start in the spring with two sixth-place finishes, then
came on strong at the end, winning the Pac-10 title and placing
second at the NCAA West Regionals.
But clearly, the story of this tournament was Woods. For him the
NCAA title was a rite of passage, marking the end of the phenom
part of his career and the beginning of the grown-up part. From
now on, everything he does in amateur competition will be pretty
much redundant. Still, this wasn't the way he wanted to win his
first NCAA title. All his final-round fizzle proved, of course,
is that he's human. At the news conference on Saturday, he
looked drained. "Things started to slip away quickly. I knew
that they could," he said. "People will never know what it took
for me to get it back. I dug down awfully deep today, and I'm
proud of myself."
Typically, however, he didn't reveal his inner turmoil until
after he had accepted his plaque, posed for photographers and
acknowledged all the congratulations. Waiting in the parking lot
for a van to take him to the airport, Woods said, to no one in
particular, "Man, I gotta get out of here. I'm so far behind in
school. I've got a paper due Tuesday, but I've got to make a
stop [at Muirfield, in Dublin, Ohio, to accept the Jack Nicklaus
award as college golf's top player] before I can go home." He
paused and shook his head. "I'm just so pissed off right now."
That's Tiger for you. Never mind that he won the NCAA title.
Never mind that he was the only golfer in the 156-player field
to break par. Never mind that except for a few stray shots on
Saturday, he played a brand of golf that renewed interest in
some oft-asked questions: How can he want to remain an amateur
when he's so clearly superior to his competition? And how can he
resist the $10 million or so in endorsement income that is
expected to be his as soon as he declares himself a pro?
When those questions were raised last week, Woods and his
parents, Earl and Kutilda, became exasperated and indignant, as
if it were unseemly to even suggest that Tiger might leave
school early. Don't you know that Tiger is a student more than a
golfer? Don't you understand he loves the challenging
intellectual environment at Stanford? Don't you realize that he
doesn't need to turn pro the way a lot of college basketball and
football players do?
"The speculation doesn't bother me," said Earl after Thursday's
second round. "I know it sells newspapers and magazines. I won't
make the decision. Tiger will make it on his own, but [if he
decides to turn pro] then he's going to have to justify it to
me. I'll fire my best shots at him. I've been rehearsing my
speech for six months. I'll deal with all the rationales, all
the justifications, all the questions. If he still says he wants
to turn pro, I'll support him 100 percent."
Jack Nicklaus was a junior when he faced a similar decision in
1961 after winning his only NCAA title, which in those days was
decided by match play. "There are only two important tournaments
as far as I'm concerned--the Masters and the [U.S.] Open," he
said. "I plan to drop out of school for the  spring term
so I can get ready for them. I just don't have the time to
combine school, my insurance business and golf. So I'll have to
finish school later."
Nicklaus turned pro in January '62 and won his first U.S. Open
that same year. Yet the Bear had some pressures that Tiger--what
is it with these predatory animal nicknames?--doesn't have.
Nicklaus was newly married and had his first child on the way;
Woods has no such obligations. And Woods seems more determined
to get a college degree.
At the Nicklaus award ceremony on Sunday, Woods reiterated that
he would not turn pro before he graduates from Stanford in 1998,
although he left his options open by adding during the telecast
of the Memorial, "unless something exciting happens." Still, he
clearly likes college life. "The only two weeks I don't enjoy
are midterms and finals," he said.
With the NCAAs behind him, Woods planned on cramming his finals
in at Stanford in time to compete in the U.S. Open next week. In
last year's Open at Shinnecock, he shot 74 in the first round
and withdrew after five holes in the second, ostensibly because
he injured a wrist while trying to hit out of the rough. " [The
injury] had nothing to do with it," said his dad. "He was
absolutely gone because he had just gone through finals. All he
could think of was eating and sleeping."
Woods could be in the same state when he arrives for this year's
Open, which will be held at Oakland Hills. "The golfer at
Stanford gets no slack--absolutely none," said Earl last week.
"He'll arrive at the Open like a zombie from studying."
In the 35 years since Nicklaus's title, the NCAA has been won by
such notable future pros as Hale Irwin, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite
and Phil Mickelson. Only now has the tournament produced a
player--and a nickname--who merits comparisons to the young
Bear. On the golf course Tiger is that good. But he's also a
serious student. "Of the six kids he hangs around with, Tiger
says he's the dumbest one," says Kutilda. That's no disgrace.
One of his pals is a math whiz who had already passed all of
Stanford's basic math courses when he enrolled as a freshman.
Another assembled a computer from parts so expertly that it
worked from the moment he turned it on. And so on.
As for Woods, he's majoring in economics while trying to prove
himself the best collegiate golfer in the nation. Last week he
aced the Honors Course.