To understand what golf is now, don't watch Tiger Woods. Watch who watches Tiger Woods. Young black women in tight jeans and heels. Tour caddies, back out on the course after hauling a bag 18 holes. White arbitrageurs with cell phones. Giant groups of fourth-graders, mimicking their first golf swings. Pasty golf writers who haven't left the press tent since the days of Fat Jack. Hispanic teens in Dallas Cowboys jerseys trying to find their way around a golf course for the first time in their lives. Bus drivers and CEOs and mothers with strollers catching the wheels in the bunkers as they go.
History will do that. History will suck you into places you have never been. Woods is making history almost daily. Last week at Disney World in Orlando, the throngs following him turned every tee box into the line at Space Mountain, and he gave them still more history, winning for a cereal-spoon-dropping second time in his first seven starts—the greatest professional debut in golf history—and bankrolling his way to 23rd on the Tour's money list and the pole position in this week's gaudy Tour Championship at Southern Hills in Tulsa. The way things were supposed to work, Tiger was to tee it up at the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament in December to try to earn his card. He even sent in the $3,000 entry fee. He can void the check now. From Tour school to Tour Championship in seven weeks. The kid's a quick study.
They will show up in Tulsa, too, this tsunami of Tiger Tailers, dipping their big toes into the game for the first time, hoping to answer the question, Is this really happening? At the Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic, where Woods won another $216,000 to get him to nearly three quarters of a million, attendance tripled from the year before. For his seven-week scorched-divot tour since he became a professional on Aug. 28, tournament directors conservatively estimate that he has drawn an extra 150,000 fans. And this is not Chicago and Los Angeles. This is Coal Valley, Ill., and Endicott, N.Y. No wonder that when Woods committed to play the Disney, the tournament director jumped into a swimming pool.
Whoo-boy. Maybe those Nike ads had it right. Is golf ready for this? Golf used to be four white guys sitting around a pinochle table talking about their shaft flexes and deciding whether to have the wilted lettuce soup. Now golf is Cindy Crawford sending Woods a letter. A youngster who'd been promised a round of golf with Woods was bouncing all around his Orlando home two weeks ago, going, "When is Tiger coming? When is Tiger coming?" The kid's name? Ken Griffey Jr.
Australian reporters are demanding a press conference the minute Woods's feet touch Australian soil in November for the Australian Open. At the Quad City Classic in Coal Valley, they had to print up more tickets. Teens in Milwaukee screamed his name so loud and for so long that he had to come to the window and wave to get them to calm down. "It was like he was the pope!" says Tiger's mom, Tida.
He's not the pope. More like a god. "I don't think we've had a whole lot happen in what, 10 years?" says golf's last deity, Jack Nicklaus. "I mean, some guys have come on and won a few tournaments, but nobody has sustained and dominated. I think we might have somebody now."
When was the last time a 20-year-old showed up and grabbed an entire sport by the throat? The Disney was Woods's fifth top-five finish in five starts. Not only has no rookie ever come within a moon shot of doing that, but also no player has done it since Curtis Strange 14 years ago. Woods is looking at the possibility—if he finishes first or second in Tulsa this week—of winning $1 million in eight events. It took Nicklaus eight years to make that much.
What else? A scoring average as a pro that, at 67.89, would be the lowest in Vardon Trophy history if Woods had enough rounds to qualify, lower by almost a stroke than Greg Norman's record 68.81, set in 1994. Woods would also be this year's leader in three other statistical categories: driving average (302.8, 14 yards better than John Daly's), birdies per round (4.68) and eagle frequency (one every 55 holes). He has finished, in order, 60th, 11th, fifth, third, first (at Las Vegas), third and first, and he goes to Tulsa to play the big boys as "the best player on our Tour," says veteran Jay Haas.
Want to hear something scary? "I really haven't played my best golf yet," Woods says. "I haven't even had a great putting week yet."
Could it be that this remarkable streak is not a streak at all? "Oh, god," says Peter Jacobsen, who would have loved to have had one top-five this year. "If this is how he is every week, then it's over. He's the greatest player in the history of the game."