"I'm going to make a prediction," Earl Woods said Sunday night, as champagne both tingled and loosened his tongue. "Before he's through, my son will win 14 major championships."
America's most prominent golf father clutched the Havemeyer Trophy, from which he was drinking, and looked around the nearly empty merchandise tent near the clubhouse of the Newport (R.I.) Country Club. The handful of friends and autograph seekers laughed and cheered. His son, 19-year-old Tiger Woods, smiled too—but bashfully. It's embarrassing when Dad blurts out your own secret thoughts.
Skeptics will complain that the Stanford sophomore has yet to win his first major championship. But after last week's 95th U.S. Amateur Championship, Earl Woods had every right to see his son's future through rose-colored champagne glasses. On the same Rhode Island layout where Charles Blair MacDonald won the first Amateur in 1895, Tiger Woods became the ninth player to win back-to-back Amateur championships and the first since Bobby Jones to give the impression that he might win as many as he enters. "To my son, Tiger," Earl Woods said, raising the trophy with a stiff right arm. "One of the greatest golfers in the history of the United States."
The father said it boldly. The son had said it already, two hours earlier, with a lightning bolt—an eight-iron to within 18 inches of the cup on the 36th hole of his final match with George (Buddy) Marucci, a luxury-car dealer from Berwyn, Pa. With Marucci one down but on the green with a 20-foot birdie putt, Woods hit the type of knockdown shot from 140 yards that wasn't in his arsenal at last year's Amateur or earlier this year in his first Masters. At Newport, his knockdown approach to the 18th green flew right over the flag and spun back almost to the cup—making a prophet of ESPN commentator Johnny Miller, who had said as Tiger addressed the ball, "I wouldn't be surprised if he knocks it a foot from the hole."
It didn't surprise anyone, really. Woods has won five USGA championships, and, dating to the first of his three U.S. Junior Amateurs in 1991, he is the first male since Jones to win a USGA title in five consecutive years. If Woods doesn't turn professional until after his expected graduation in 1998, he could equal Jones's record of five U.S. Amateur titles. "Tiger is the best athlete that this [level] of golf has seen," said Marucci, whose consolation prize from a 2-up defeat was selection with Woods to the U.S. Walker Cup team. "He's lean, he's strong, his swing is marvelous. I couldn't see the ball come off the club for the first 27 holes. It came off the club that fast."
Marucci, a four-time Pennsylvania amateur champion, lists the club championships of prestigious Pine Valley and Seminole among his accomplishments, but in 16 previous Amateurs he had advanced past the second round just once. He had Woods 3 down after 12 holes and 2 down after 19, but, despite three birdies over a four-hole stretch later in the round, Marucci couldn't hold off the prodigy. In the semifinals it was Mark Plummer, an eight-time Maine Amateur and two-time New England Amateur champion who took Woods to the 18th hole. Marucci and Plummer are 43, and Woods attributed their near success to middle-age cunning and superior scrambling skills. "They may hit it awry occasionally," he said, "but they can get it up and down from everywhere. Great putting can make up for a lot of sins."
Great shotmaking goes a long way too. Asked which Amateur title meant more—the first, where he rallied from 6 down after 13 holes in the final against Trip Kuehne, or this one—Woods replied immediately: "This one meant more because it showed how far my game has come. That shot at 18—damn! That's the only shot I could hit close, that half shot. I didn't have it last year, I didn't have it at Augusta."
Playing the Scottish Open at Carnoustie and the British Open at St. Andrews in July taught Woods that there was more to hitting golf shots than hitting them full bore. Having a full complement of shots is a prerequisite for playing Newport, a links-style course whose swirling seaside winds shift more often than a running back in a multiple-set offense. And by the time he arrived for the Amateur, Woods had learned how to control his ball in the wind, how to hit a three-quarter draw to a back-left pin, and how to whistle a low two-iron 265 yards—as he did off the final tee on Sunday. But the knockdown shot was Woods's knockout punch at Newport.
"When he plays with the Couples, the Normans, the Faldos, the Prices, he marvels at the way they control the ball in the air," said his coach Butch Harmon. "After the British Open, he said, 'Butch, how far away am I? When will I be that good?' I said, 'You just have to keep working. You've got so much to learn.' "
Judging from his play in the Amateur, Woods is a quick study. Marucci acknowledged that, shaking the youngster's hand as the two approached the 18th green and Marucci saw Woods's ball just behind the hole, close enough to kick in. "Like all the great champions," said Jay Brunza, Woods's caddie and sports psychologist of the past six years, "Tiger has the ability to raise his game when he has to."