The first NCAA golf championship was held in 1897, so it was somewhat newsworthy that last week's tournament at the Honors Course, 25 miles east of Chattanooga, set an attendance record. But before you conclude that interest in college golf is rising, you should know that of the 14,694 tickets purchased, roughly 14,000 were bought by people who came to see if Tiger Woods of Stanford really is the best amateur golfer to stroll down a fairway since that fat kid, name of Nicklaus, was at Ohio State from 1958 to '61. The answer, to use the local vernacular, was, "Sure 'nuff."
On each of the four days you didn't have to look long to find Woods, the 19-year-old prodigy who has won the last two U.S. Amateur championships. How big has Tiger become? Well, bigger than the NCAA Championships. Instead of the usual three guards per threesome, his group had nine until the final day, when the number grew to 15. The NCAA, which issued 80 media credentials for last year's championships, in which Woods tied for fifth, passed out 225 for this one. The nightly tournament wrap-up was faxed to 116 recipients, from ESPN's SportsCenter to Pro Golf Discount of Birmingham. Almost everywhere Woods turned, somebody asked him to sign a hat or a scorecard. Upon receiving Tiger's autograph after Saturday's final round, one Southern belle said, "Woooo, you have a famous-looking signature. Yeah, I think you're definitely going to be famous." That made Woods grin his million-dollar grin, which was no small accomplishment considering how angry he was after just shooting an uncharacteristic eight-over-par 80.
For three glorious days the course had been putty in Tiger's hands. He opened on Wednesday with a three-under-par 69 that put him a shot off the lead; took control in Thursday's second round with a 67 that broke the competitive course record held by three players, one of them a Nicklaus (Gary, not Jack); and separated himself from the field with a 69 on Friday that gave him a nine-shot lead heading into the final round. His play was so sweet, so pure, so smart—he often sacrificed distance off the tee to make sure he was on the right side of the fairway—that some people found it amusing when Woods insisted after the third round that the course and the field were not pushovers. "Is it easy out there?" he said, repeating a question with a look of incredulity. "Oh, god, no! This is not a course that you can play aggressively. I feel good about my game, but there's still one more day. Anything can happen."
And doggone if anything—or something or everything—didn't jump up and bite him in Saturday's final round. After reaching the 9th tee at one under for the day, Woods lost seven strokes to par during a five-hole stretch. He came unraveled at number 9, a 369-yard par-4 protected by water along the front of the green. Woods hit a good drive but pushed his second shot into the gallery on the back right side of the hole. He then attempted a flop shot that flew on him and went into the water. Another flop shot left him on the fringe. From there, he two-putted for a triple-bogey 7. Woods then bogeyed 10, 11, 12 and 13. On the PGA Tour that would be fatal 99% of the time. All it did to Woods was cut his margin of victory to four shots (285 to 289) over Rory Sabbatini of Arizona.
Stanford finished fourth in the team competition, 19 strokes behind champion Arizona State but just one shot back of the third-place finisher, East Tennessee State. The Sun Devils had a five-shot lead after the first round, lost it to East Tennessee State in the second round, regained the lead the third day and survived a stiff challenge by UNLV to win by three shots. Going into the 72nd and final hole, Arizona State and UNLV were tied at the top, thanks to a birdie chip by UNLV's Mike Ruiz at number 17. But the Sun Devils caught a break when Ted Oh, UNLV's best player, hooked his tee shot into some trees on number 18 and wound up with a bogey. "I never doubted that we would win," said Arizona State coach Randy Lein, whose Sun Devils got off to a slow start in the spring with two sixth-place finishes, then came on strong at the end, winning the Pac-10 title and placing second at the NCAA West Regionals.
But clearly, the story of this tournament was Woods. For him the NCAA title was a rite of passage, marking the end of the phenom part of his career and the beginning of the grown-up part. From now on, everything he does in amateur competition will be pretty much redundant. Still, this wasn't the way he wanted to win his first NCAA title. All his final-round fizzle proved, of course, is that he's human. At the news conference on Saturday, he looked drained. "Things started to slip away quickly. I knew that they could," he said. "People will never know what it took for me to get it back. I dug down awfully deep today, and I'm proud of myself."
Typically, however, he didn't reveal his inner turmoil until after he had accepted his plaque, posed for photographers and acknowledged all the congratulations. Waiting in the parking lot for a van to take him to the airport, Woods said, to no one in particular, "Man, I gotta get out of here. I'm so far behind in school. I've got a paper due Tuesday, but I've got to make a stop [at Muirfield, in Dublin, Ohio, to accept the Jack Nicklaus award as college golf's top player] before I can go home." He paused and shook his head. "I'm just so pissed off right now."
That's Tiger for you. Never mind that he won the NCAA title. Never mind that he was the only golfer in the 156-player field to break par. Never mind that except for a few stray shots on Saturday, he played a brand of golf that renewed interest in some oft-asked questions: How can he want to remain an amateur when he's so clearly superior to his competition? And how can he resist the $10 million or so in endorsement income that is expected to be his as soon as he declares himself a pro?
When those questions were raised last week, Woods and his parents, Earl and Kutilda, became exasperated and indignant, as if it were unseemly to even suggest that Tiger might leave school early. Don't you know that Tiger is a student more than a golfer? Don't you understand he loves the challenging intellectual environment at Stanford? Don't you realize that he doesn't need to turn pro the way a lot of college basketball and football players do?
"The speculation doesn't bother me," said Earl after Thursday's second round. "I know it sells newspapers and magazines. I won't make the decision. Tiger will make it on his own, but [if he decides to turn pro] then he's going to have to justify it to me. I'll fire my best shots at him. I've been rehearsing my speech for six months. I'll deal with all the rationales, all the justifications, all the questions. If he still says he wants to turn pro, I'll support him 100 percent."