The Promise Keeper

February 21, 2000

You know the coolest thing about Tiger Woods's streak?

Nah, not the six straight wins, one of the top 10 feats in
modern sports history.

Not the way he almost made it seven, even after losing his swing
somewhere among the hang gliders and moondoggies and nude
beachers at Torrey Pines Golf Club outside San Diego.

Not that during those seven tournaments he fricasseed 623 other
golfers, tied one and lost to one.

Not that he earned just cab fare less than $5 million over those
seven weeks, or did enough ads to make people actually believe
he drives a Buick, or that he went from 17th on the career PGA
Tour money list to first.

Not that during that stretch he passed Ralph Guldahl, Tommy
Bolt, Ken Venturi, Tom Weiskopf, Fred Couples, David Duval, Paul
Azinger, Mark O'Meara, Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson, Corey
Pavin and Nick Price in career wins even though he still isn't
old enough to rent a car in most places.

Not that he beat the nastiest sticks from all over the world
while tromping through 10 time zones and being herded daily
through last-day-of-Saigon mobs, Watergate press conferences and
lobbies full of get-a-life autograph hounds, including one at
5:50 one morning at the Torrey Pines Hilton.

Not that he had done all this when no other Tour golfer had even
won four in a row since the '50s. And not that after losing at
Torrey Pines to Mickelson he wasn't relieved as any sane human
would be, but was genuinely pissed at what he called "finishing
second" to Byron Nelson's antiquated, not-even-comparable streak
of 11 in 1945 against a whole lot of Jug McSpadens in Miami Four
Balls.

Not even that last Saturday night somebody actually asked,
"Tiger, would you be surprised if one of these guys makes a run
at you?" and Woods was trailing by six at the time.

No, the coolest thing about the Tiger Woods streak was that when
he was hotter than a six-dollar pistol, in a publicity boiler,
he kept a promise he'd made to a junior high school buddy three
months before and let him caddie in San Diego.

Can you believe that?

Woods benched his regular caddie, Steve Williams, in favor of a
gangly, 24-year-old childhood friend, Bryon Bell, who was trying
to earn a little money for med school.

Wouldn't you have said, "Look, B, I'll catch you sometime when
I'm not trying to climb Annapurna." Or, "Yo, B, can I front you
the cash instead?"

"If it were me in a situation this big?" said one longtime Tour
caddie. "I wouldn't have let anybody but my regular guy within a
mile of that bag."

But as Tiger's mother, Tida, said on Saturday night, "My son has
changed completely. He's all grown up now." It's true. He laughs
more, glares less, looks you in the eye more, storms out less,
breaks out in grins more, breaks shafts less, makes bogey more,
triple bogey less and, maybe because of all that, has become the
most thrilling athlete in the world.

He's the kind of man who risked the streak in the madness of
Pebble Beach two weeks ago to play with his best college buddy,
Jerry Chang. He's the kind of man who would put Bell, a
10-handicap Pacific Bell planning engineer, on the hottest set
of tools this side of Bob Vila's--just to be true.

Of course Woods did much of the caddying himself. He
double-checked every yardage B gave him. B read fewer of Tiger's
putts than the guy from The Des Moines Register. Sometimes B
would throw some grass to check the wind, and Woods would reach
down and throw some, too. No offense, of course. None taken.

"I was a little worried about screwing up," said the
bespectacled Bell, who's known Woods since the seventh grade and
played No. 2 to him on Anaheim's Western High golf team, "but
we've had a great time." Profitable, too. Figuring Woods's usual
fat caddie fees, Bell made upward of $25,000, which is about
half what he makes a year at Pac Bell. Med school, here we come.

Nurse, which way does this break?

Yeah, Tiger can make a driver scream in fluent titanium, or get
balata up and down out of Sing Sing, or make 20-year vets turn
Maalox-white and pull over at the sight of him in their rearview
mirrors, but all that's the outdoor pool-shark stuff.

What's cool now is what's inside.

COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SIGMA

Tiger Woods put a junior high buddy on the hottest set of tools
this side of Bob Vila's--just to be true.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)