Woods is also disappointed by some of the rules he must adhere to as a college golfer. Because of NCAA regulations, the clinics that he did as a junior golfer in urban areas to help introduce more minorities to golf have had to stop; also, the threat of sanctions against Tiger has forced his father, Earl, to put on hold a national program with major sponsors designed to give inner-city youth access to the game. Tiger was understandably annoyed after the NCAA declared him ineligible for a few hours while it investigated whether he had broken a rule by allowing Palmer to buy him dinner one night last October. After Woods was persuaded to mail Palmer a $25 check to cover the meal, there was further unpleasantness when at a charity dinner last December, a group of Palo Alto businessmen held an impromptu auction for the canceled check without first asking the family if they could do so. It fetched a price of $2,500. When Stanford coach Wally Goodman asked Earl to send the check, he heatedly refused. "That check is a piece of golf history that marks the meeting of two great players," says Earl. "It never belonged to the school. It belonged to Tiger."
Indeed, Earl and Kultida Woods have softened their original imperative that their son graduate before turning pro. Kultida worries that the academic and athletic demands on Tiger are becoming too stressful. "I will support whatever he decides," she says. "I give him my advice that money is not the issue and to be careful not to sacrifice his youth. But my boy is a man now, and I trust his judgment."
As the most acclaimed college golfer ever, Woods is under pressure. Recently ESPN decided to telecast the Far Western Tournament at Pasatiempo Golf Club in Santa Cruz, Calif. The telecast was scheduled with Woods's star power in mind. However, because the Far Western ends on the day that he planned to travel to Augusta, Woods wanted to skip it. Yet he felt compelled to play. "I would have liked to have had the extra day," he says, "but I kind of owe it to college golf to play."
Meanwhile, several PGA Tour players believe Woods should be competing for a living against the best in the world. "He might be spinning his wheels if he stays in school all four years," says Curtis Strange, who played with Woods in the second round at Augusta last year. "If his game is ready, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is, I would advise him to come out."
Still, Woods is holding firm to his intention to stay in school through his scheduled graduation in 1998. The reason is simple: He loves college. Woods comes from a background that stresses academics, which was the primary reason he chose Stanford. He is an economics major who takes his classes seriously.
"Definitely I could be playing better golf at another school," he says. "Because of the workload, I'm always tired, and my mind is never clear. A lot of times on the course I'll be preoccupied with how much studying I have to do. I'm no brainiac. I have to work hard to get by. But I'm here to get an education and live the total college experience."
Perhaps what Woods enjoys most about Stanford is that within its enclosed environment he can escape the scrutiny that has increasingly followed him as he has racked up three straight U.S. Junior championships and two consecutive U.S. Amateur titles. At Stanford, Woods is among other high achievers who do not treat him as anyone special.
"Stanford is like Utopia." he says. "It's not the real world, which I guess is why I want to spend more time here. Maybe my game is ready, but the question is, am I ready mentally and emotionally to live the life of a pro? I know for sure I will be here next year."
Said with conviction, but upcoming performances could justifiably alter Woods's perspective. Besides the Masters, he is pointing to two other events: the NCAA Championship, May 29-June 1 at the Honors Course near Chattanooga, and the U.S. Amateur at Pumpkin Ridge in Cornelius. Ore. Winning the NCAA individual title would prove that Woods is a dominant college golfer—he tied for fifth as a freshman—and an unprecedented third straight Amateur championship would establish him as the most dominant amateur since Bobby Jones.
Of course, getting in the hunt on Sunday at the Masters would even further convince Woods that he has simply become too good a golfer to stay in college. Ironically, by preparing hard for the week, Woods is doing everything in his power to end his self-described Utopia.