Tiger woods might seem to be momentarily parked between a storied past and a golden future, but as he prepares for the 1996 Masters, a glance at his life reveals a young man evolving so quickly, he could qualify as a walking study in time-lapse photography.
During the college-am portion of the recent Southwestern Intercollegiate at the North Ranch Country Club in Westlake Village, Calif., the 20-year-old Stanford sophomore showed himself to be a work in progress who has grown in three dimensions since his memorable first appearance at the Masters 12 months ago.
First, he is bigger. Since winning the U.S. Amateur last August at the Newport (R.I.) Country Club, Woods has gained 15 pounds, as hormones, training-table cuisine and a weightlifting program have combined to build up his heretofore wispy 6'2" frame to 155 pounds. His shoulders are wider and his forearms thicker.
Woods is also becoming a polished ambassador of the game. Far from the reticent and self-contained stripling who was taken aback by the rush of media that met his debut at Augusta National, Woods now handles himself in public with aplomb. His amateur partners at North Ranch, a boisterous threesome of middle-aged men from the home club who each donated a few hundred dollars to college golf for the privilege of playing with the game's leading prince, loved hitting their popgun drives and immediately blurting things like, "I hope you learned something from that one, Tiger!" Woods played the amiable straight man, all the while responding to the gallery's autograph and photo requests with a pleasant "No problem." It was a performance straight from the book of his famous dinner companion Arnold Palmer.
Finally, he is a better golfer. Woods is quickly transforming himself from an untamed young gun to a mature shotmaker. While his increased strength allows him to hit his tee shots even farther than he could as the statistically longest hitter over four rounds at the '95 Masters (in the last six months he has caved in or otherwise broken live driver heads through the sheer force he imparts at impact), there is now an educated restraint to his driving that makes his mishits much more playable. The gearing down is even more noticeable in his iron play. Whereas Woods used to favor high-flying approaches that were majestic but hard to control, he has developed a shot that flies lower, curves less and carries less spin. He is also hitting his clubs shorter distances with shallower divots, all in the interest of accuracy, consistency and control.
The impetus for the shotmaking changes was his performance at Augusta, where he squandered his impressive driving with rough-hewn iron play. Except on the four par-5s, which he hit with regularity in two using as little as a nine-iron, Woods had few makable birdie putts, the primary reason he could fare no better than a respectable 72-72-77-72-293 to tie for 41st.
Four months later Woods won the Amateur on a bone-dry, links-style Newport course where distance control and an innate feel for the bounce of the ball were at a premium. Woods used a new technique with his irons in which his action was compact and his hands passive. His 140-yard eight-iron punched to within two feet on the final hole of the championship match was a perfect closer.
The point is, the Tiger Woods who will attack Augusta National this week is much more than a young amateur who will be happy just to play on the weekend. A few hours after finishing his final round last year, as he sat in the Crow's Nest and watched Ben Crenshaw win, a reflective Woods realized he had been capable of more. "You know, this place is perfect for me," he said quietly. "I've just got to refine some things." A year later few doubt that Woods has the game, the course knowledge and the poise to play his way into contention.
"I'm getting myself ready," he said after finessing a seven-iron from 155 yards to within 10 feet of the pin during his practice round at North Ranch. "That's the kind of shot I need at Augusta." Two days later Woods won the 54-hole event by three strokes with a 213 total, his third victory in eight collegiate events this season (he also has three seconds). "I hit it terrible, but I got it around," he said. "I've got a lot of work to do. But I'm getting closer. If I'm lucky, everything will peak at the right time."
If Woods does do well at Augusta, it will fuel speculation that he is on the verge of reneging on his vow to postpone his professional career until he gets a degree. In addition to the level of his game and the millions in endorsements he should receive the moment he turns pro, there are plenty of reasons to believe Woods is not long for college golf. For one, unlike last year's Stanford team, which lost the NCAA title to Oklahoma State in a sudden-death playoff, this year's Cardinal is no powerhouse. Woods admits he gets no particular thrill out of week-in, week-out college competition. "I keep myself interested by working on my own game," he says.