Huh? O.K., 17 strokes separated Tiger from second-round leader Davis Love III, who was 12 under. But he was just 12 strokes behind eventual winner Fred Couples, the 1991 PGA Player of the Year. And although Tiger was off his game—he hit only 10 of 36 fairways though he is normally consistent off the tee—he outscored 15 seasoned players, including two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North; Andrew Magee, who won two tournaments last year; and 42-year-old Mitch Voges, the current U.S. Amateur champion. Not exactly a confidence crusher, now is it? More important, Tiger showed that he knows how to scrape it around when he doesn't have his "A" game, which is the mark of a golfer as opposed to a ball striker.
"He was playing Army Golf: left, right, left, right," said his father, Earl, who had his son swinging a sawed-off putter in the garage at age 10. Ten months, that is. "But he was getting up and down like a thief. He recovered and made pars from positions that Riviera hasn't seen in a long time."
There was, for instance, the par Tiger made Thursday on the par-4 number 2, when he snap-hooked his drive between a row of oleanders and the practice-range fence. Trying to chip to the fairway, he caught the edge of the cart path—the ball bounced back toward him—and wound up lying two, still 170 yards from the green and behind a massive tree. With his backswing impeded by branches, Tiger still was able to hit a high, improbable hook with an eight-iron. The ball swept home like a boomerang and bit four feet from the hole.
"I hit eight greens and shot 72," Tiger said jokingly after Thursday's round. "What does that tell you? I was getting up and down like a champ."
Maybe it told more. With his scrambling, Tiger displayed composure and imagination—not to mention the technical skill to maneuver the ball in unconventional ways. (Retaining such a deft touch isn't easy when you've grown five inches in two years, which means the club you used on a particular shot yesterday might not work today on the very same shot.) "He plays the mental game like he's been out here seven or eight years," said his caddie, Ron (Graphite) Matthews, a veteran bag carrier.
"He's remarkably mature," added 28-year-old Tour rookie Bobby Friend, who, along with second-year player Dicky Thompson, 34, played with Tiger both days. "It was kind of a zoo out there, but Tiger got the ball up and down from some unbelievable spots. I'd say his game is on the level of a good college player, possibly an All-America."
Tiger's fans went further. "He's the next Nicklaus, maybe better," raved one spectator on Wednesday as Tiger cut the corner with his driver on the tree-lined 18th in the pro-am. "There walks the future of American golf," gushed another on Friday when Tiger saved a miracle par on number 6 with a twisting, downhill eight-foot putt.
The touring pros, while conceding that Tiger may be the best junior golfer ever—he has won a record six junior world titles—steered away from hyperbole. They noted that Doug Clarke, who won the Trans-Mississippi Amateur at age 17, never made it on the Tour and now gives lessons at a driving range in Del Mar, Calif. And there's 23-year-old Bob May, who, before Tiger, held the record for youngest player in a Tour event (16 years, three months and 18 days) but failed to earn his PGA Tour card last fall and now toils on the Asian Tour. Even Hallberg, a four-time college All-America, was once billed as the next Nicklaus—but has fallen 18 majors short.
Moreover, Tiger is already nursing a sore back caused, in part, by growing pains. On Thursday, Tiger pulled a back muscle on the par-5 11th as he struggled to escape from the rough on a severe uphill lie. The injury was treated after the round and iced throughout the evening.
"Tiger's got all the tools to be a star, but only time will tell," said veteran Mark O'Meara, who played a practice round with Tiger in January. "I told him to have fun. There's no rush to get to the Tour."