Long odds are still available on Tiger Woods's achieving his goal of becoming the greatest golfer of all time. But after the breathtaking way in which he made history on Sunday by winning the most dramatic U.S. Amateur ever, would a wise man bet against him?
Even with his unprecedented three consecutive victories in the Amateur—the latest attained in a heart-stopping 38th-hole win at Pumpkin Ridge near Portland over an unyielding Steve Scott—the 20-year-old Woods is a long way from making a serious dent in the record of Jack Nicklaus, who has won 18 professional majors along with two Amateurs. But not even Nicklaus's career got off to a better start and, Lord, does Woods know how to finish.
He has been winning national championships since he was 15, when he won the first of his three straight U.S. Junior titles. Now, after six consecutive years as a USGA champion, Woods has achieved the closure that will allow him to join Bobby Jones and Nicklaus in the record book as the greatest amateurs ever, while at the same time ending the debate over whether he should turn pro. As SI went to press, Woods was scheduled to make the announcement on Wednesday, the day before the opening round of this week's Greater Milwaukee Open, where he would be playing—for pay now—on a sponsor's exemption. Woods, who is the NCAA champion, will withdraw from Stanford on the eve of what would have been his junior year, with a promise to his parents that he will return to complete his degree sometime in the future.
Woods's immediate plans are ambitious: He wants to qualify for the 1997 PGA Tour by earning enough money in the next two months to get himself into the top 125 on this year's money list. His passport will be the seven sponsors' exemptions annually allowed a player. After Milwaukee, Woods plans to play in the Canadian Open, the Quad City Classic, the B.C. Open, the Las Vegas Invitational, the Texas Open and the Disney/Oldsmobile Classic. If he wins a tournament, Woods will be exempt from having to qualify for two years; if he earns more than $150,000 over the remainder of the year, he should make the top 125. Should he fall short, he will have to qualify for the '97 Tour by earning one of the 40 or so spots available at the dread PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, which he says he "doesn't want to fool with."
Woods had been seriously thinking about turning pro since a wondrous 66 in the second round of July's British Open. "Something really clicked that day, like I had found a whole new style of playing," he said on Sunday. "I finally understood the meaning of playing within myself. Ever since, the game has seemed a lot easier."
His resolve had hardened after an uninspired performance at the Western Amateur last month, where he was beaten in the first round by 19-year-old Terry Noe, the 1994 Junior champion. "I was just flat, and that told me something," Woods said.
On Sunday night Woods, too drained from the week's 156 holes of competition for anything but pizza and a shower at the Portland home where he was staying, explained his decision. "I had intended to stay in school, play four years at Stanford and get my degree, but things change," he said. "I didn't know my game was going to progress to this point. It got harder to get motivated for college matches, and since I accomplished my goal of winning the NCAA, it was going to get harder still. Finally, winning the third Amateur in a row is a great way to go out. I always said I would know when it was time, and now is the time."
Woods had sought out the opinions of several touring pros, including Fred Couples, Ernie Els, Curtis Strange and Greg Norman. They told him they believed he was ready physically and mentally for the Tour. When Woods's father, Earl, saw that his son was serious about turning pro, he had opened the most high-powered bidding war ever for a golfer. A source close to Woods says that Woods's endorsement deals with Nike (shoes and clothes) and Titleist (ball and clubs) will add up to at least $37 million over the next five years. Reportedly included in the ripple effect from Woods's decision: He has accepted an invitation to play in the Skins Game on Thanksgiving weekend.
Nike cofounder and CEO Phil Knight drove up Woods's price because he openly coveted the player for his cross-cultural appeal. With Nike's Beaverton, Ore., headquarters only 15 miles from Pumpkin Ridge, Knight gladly put up with 90°-plus heat to watch all but one of Woods's matches. Although he tried to keep a low profile by wearing the same kind of shirt that had been issued to tournament volunteers, Knight could hardly contain himself, spontaneously cheering Woods's shots. When a reporter suggested that Woods might have the same charisma and flair for competition as Michael Jordan, who also endorses Nike products. Knight said, "You bet your ass. Same deal." However, even the ultracompetitive Jordan once lost his taste for basketball because of the constant pressures of life in the fishbowl, and Woods will have to deal with the judgments, envy and expectations an unproven star making mega-dollars inevitably attracts.
"All the amateur titles Tiger has won won't mean anything, and he'll have to prove himself in a hard environment where there is no mercy," says swing coach Butch Harmon, who worked with Woods all week at Pumpkin Ridge. "He's got the intelligence and the tools to succeed very quickly. My only worry is that he's losing two of the best years of his life to do something that is very demanding for a young person. Considering everything, he's making the right decision, but he's going to have to grow up faster than I'd like him to."