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Touring professionals don't assess Tiger Woods's golf game the way you might. You are awed by the speed of his hands through the ball and the distance he gets with his driver. Touring professionals, in the privacy of their courtesy-car conversations, take a more cold-blooded view. They say, Good amateur golfer.
They know, to paraphrase Bobby Jones, that there is golf and there is professional golf—and they are not at all the same. Scott Verplank was a good amateur who won a Tour event while in college and has been ordinary as a professional. Phil Mickelson was a good amateur who won a Tour event while in college and has been spectacular as a professional. Tiger Woods is a sophomore at Stanford. Earlier this month he won the NCAA individual title. He's a superb amateur golfer. But professional golfers will tell you: Everything changes when you start playing for money.
For the first two rounds at the national championship, the USGA sends off the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open and British Open champs as a threesome, which meant that last Thursday at 12:20 p.m., and again the following morning at 8, Woods, Corey Pavin and John Daly were to be found on the 1st tee at Oakland Hills. Woods, who won the U.S. Amateur last year and the year before, was playing with two of the best professionals in the game.
And, for a while, outplaying them. Through 13 holes in the opening round, Pavin was three over par, Daly was level and Woods was three under. Woods was tied for the lead of the tournament. The gallery following the three was immense from the start, but as word of Woods's round spread across the course, the gallery started to bulge uncomfortably into the wet, malodorous rough. Nobody seemed to mind. The spectators were virtually all white, and they cheered for Woods, who is not, with such verve you had the feeling that maybe American golf is finally emerging from its racist past.
On his way to the 14th tee, Woods sneaked a peak at a leader board and saw he was tied for first. On opening day that should be meaningless, and maybe someday for Woods it will be. On this day it was not. Woods closed like the guy you can beat Sunday morning: bogey, double bogey, quadruple bogey, bogey, bogey.
When the round was over, Woods, the first amateur golfer to have stature on the national sportscape since Jack Nicklaus, put on a brave face and chatted pleasantly with NBC's Johnny Miller in front of a TV camera. A half hour later he was standing by the open trunk of his courtesy car. Wordlessly, he tossed a putter against a golf instruction book, smashed the trunk closed, folded his lanky frame behind the wheel while his father, Earl, took the passenger seat, and got off campus fast.
Daly's been there. "Those things happen," he said sympathetically of Woods's collapse. "It's happened to me a hundred times. He was going along so well. But he's tough. I wish I was that tough at 21. Hell, I was getting drunk every night when I was 21."
Actually, Woods won't turn 21 until Dec. 30. Before then he's planning to play in two Tour events, Quad Cities and Milwaukee, as an amateur. If he wins either event, he said, he will think about turning pro immediately.
Someday he will turn pro, and when he does, he and Daly will be among the longest drivers extant. The tendency is to lump all the long whackers, but their 36 holes together made it clear that Daly and Woods have wholly different methods. Daly is as flexible as Gumby; his backswing is comically long; his downswing is very steep; and his ball seems to float for a day or so until it returns to terra firma. Woods's swing is classic, and his tee shots have, compared with Daly's, more of a stinging, line-drive-drawing quality to them. On fast fairways or into a wind, Woods is longer. Downwind or on soft, wet fairways—at the Open the grass was long and the fairways mushy—Daly is longer, but not by much.