Fellow pro Steve Pate agreed: "He's got a great swing, and maybe he'll be a world-beater, but he's only 16. There's no way to predict what he'll be a few years from now."
Still, if early success is no guarantor of future stardom, neither is it a hex. And by granting Tiger the spot in the L.A. Open he almost won through qualifying a year ago, the tournament committee gave the public a chance to see golf's latest Boy Wonder while he is still a boy. Judging by last week's turnout, the typical Tiger fan is a young, or old, white, black or Oriental man, or woman, and wears either a designer polo shirt or a Spike Lee-inspired X baseball cap, or both. When Tiger spun a wedge close to the pin on one hole, a spectator with a smoky voice cackled at the ball, "Take a seat, baby!" and then added, "He put a karate chop on that!" (Not everyone, unfortunately, was so adoring. Woods, the only black player in the field, was followed by several security guards, dispatched in response to three threatening telephone messages left earlier in the week for tournament chairman Mark Kuperstock. The anonymous caller used racial epithets to express his displeasure at Kuperstock for granting an exemption to a minority player.)
The tournament also provided Tiger with something unique: the opportunity to define himself in ways that the junior golf circuit does not allow. For instance, when asked for autographs at Riviera, he complied with a simple "Tiger." This suggests that his ears won't perk up anymore if you say "Eldrick," and reveals a certain marketing savvy. He also tried out, although tentatively, the Tiger Paw—a felinelike clawing gesture used to punctuate the dropping of a key putt.
Watching, and approving, were Earl and his wife, Kultida, who raised their son in Cypress, Calif., 40 miles from Riviera. Earl, a 60-year-old former Green Beret lieutenant colonel, had dubbed his son Tiger after an officer with whom he served in Vietnam. The proud parents walked nearly every hole with their son, even though Kultida, who was born in Thailand, commuted two hours each evening to the family's home to walk and feed Tiger's new puppy, Joey. On the course Earl listened through earphones to tapes of light jazz. For him, the role of spectator was obviously a pleasant agony.
"Don't you ever do anything simple, Tiger?" he asked no one in particular when his son flew the 7th green on Friday and needed relief from a marshal's chair. Later, watching Tiger dispatch an errant tee ball, Earl shook his head and said, "I know how he can hit the fairway—just hit his one-iron 260 yards!"
If reading the old man was a cinch, reading the son wasn't. Tiger showed a shy grin when acknowledging cheers, but muffed shots had him walking around with his hands linked behind his head like a POW. Often he strolled off by himself to hang his head and ponder.
Did that mean he wasn't having fun? Hardly.
"I think these were the best two days of my life," he said on Friday, as the sun sank behind the Palisades. "I really do. Even when I hit a bad shot, people clapped."
More likely, Tiger's subdued tenor is derived from his awareness that he has embarked on a race that does not always go to the swiftest. Before he turns pro, he says, he wants to win a U.S. Amateur title, play in the Walker Cup, conquer his hummingbird metabolism in order to add weight, lead some lucky college team to the NCAA championship and get an accounting degree. And, oh, yeah, he had a high school match Monday against Gahr High in Anaheim.
"I've got a lot of growing to do, both physically and mentally," Tiger said before leaving Riviera, "but I'll play these guys again—eventually."