The education of Tiger Woods continued last week with an intrafamilial, cross-cultural and bottom-line lesson in superstardom. Although the $300,000 Asian Honda Classic in Bangkok on the minor league Omega tour was hardly big game for Tiger, the extra tasks of trying to please a proud mother riding herd in her homeland, an adoring country that had adopted him as its greatest sports celebrity, and a corporate sponsor that had paid him an appearance fee far exceeding the purse made for the most distraction-filled tournament of his brief pro career.
But this is Tiger Woods we're talking about, and despite the off-course frustrations, he did what it took to satisfy everyone, even himself. In attending to his abiding goal of winning, Woods shot rounds of 70-64-66-68 over a challenging-to-everyone-else, 7,016-yard Thai Country Club course for a 20-under-par 268, 10 strokes better than the next-best score. While the field was made up primarily of guys like second-place finisher Mo Joong Kyung of South Korea and Suthep Meesawad of Thailand, who tied for 61st, it also contained Steve Elkington, Frank Nobilo and Curtis Strange, a threesome that Woods defeated by 13,14 and 14 strokes, respectively.
By any standard Woods performed superbly before galleries that numbered close to 5,000 on the weekend, the largest ever seen in Thailand, where, although he is only half Thai, he is accepted as a full brother. Woods even treated the fans to arguably the most awesome shot of a career already bristling with improbable feats when he drove the 389-yard 10th hole during the third round. The victory, worth $48,000, was Woods's fourth in 12 starts in individual medal-play events as a pro. "Winning, period, is great, but to win here in Thailand is something special," he said. "It was a hard week with a lot going on, a lot of different forces on me, so I'm proud I overcame that, too."
From the time he set foot in Bangkok around midnight on Feb. 5, Woods was under pressure to meet his contractual obligations to attend tournament functions, and his more complicated ones to his 53-year-old mother, Kultida. "Tiger is here basically for his mother," said Alistair Johnson of International Management Group, which represents Woods. "Yes, the appearance fee was big [reportedly $480,000], but Tiger doesn't take deals just for money. The fact that this is his mother's country tipped the balance."
Kultida grew up 70 miles north of Bangkok, close to the famous bridge on the River Kwai, and many of her relatives gathered to watch her famous son play last week. Although she keeps a low profile in the U.S., deferring to her husband, Earl, whom she met 26 years ago while he was a lieutenant colonel stationed in Bangkok (Earl remained in California preparing for heart bypass surgery), in Thailand, Kultida was given the star treatment. Easy to recognize by the tiger-skin pattern on her visor, she was constantly photographed and asked for her autograph, and she gave interviews in Thai to local stations and in English to ABC News.
Tiger tried to be as accommodating, but playing abroad for large appearance fees for the second time since turning pro (his first such venture was November's Australian Open, in which he tied for fifth) left him convinced that the drain on his energy and enthusiasm is counterproductive to his aim of becoming the best golfer in the world. "Playing overseas involves some trade-offs Tiger probably doesn't need to make," says Strange, who was also paid a six-figure fee to play in Bangkok. "When you accept the kind of money from a sponsor that Tiger got, for that week they own you."
This week the Australian Masters in Melbourne, which is shelling out more than $300,000, owns Woods, but in the future he is likely to limit such trips to once a year. "I guess it all worked out," Woods said, sounding older and wiser after a chaotic week, "but these are situations I don't want to get into. All week I had no time to myself, no time to relax and have fun. I need to keep golf fun. I guess I had to learn the hard way."
Actually Woods's week was supposed to be easy. When he agreed to make the trip late last year, playing in the Asian Honda Classic appeared to be a good way to visit relatives and see landmarks like the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha, which he remembered from his first journey to Thailand, when he was nine. From the perspective of his primary sponsor, Nike, and IMG, Thailand would represent Woods's first foray into the gold mine that is the Asian golf market as well as a chance to collect a whopping appearance fee.
There was no doubt that Woods would be warmly received in a country that promotes itself as the Land of Smiles. Since winning the U.S. Amateur in August and making a spectacular debut on the PGA Tour, Woods has become the most celebrated sports figure of Thai descent. Although there are only 200 courses in Thailand and about one million golfers among its 60 million people, the country's burgeoning middle class is taking up the game in droves. Woods's victory is expected to be an important catalyst to further growth.
On the other hand, Woods's image on the front page of Bangkok newspapers and his appearances on all the country's news shows rankled some who resented seeing an American who can't even speak the language receive so much attention. Maj. Gen. Charouck Arirachakaran, secretary general of the Olympic Committee of Thailand, told the Thai newspaper The Nation that Woods's arrival "failed to excite me." He contended that boxer Somluck Kamsing (the only Thai to win an Olympic gold medal) is "pure Thai and more important." But Deputy Foreign Minister Pitak Intrawithayanunt said that Woods's popularity was positive because "we want to show that playing sports, rather than turning into drug addicts, is good for Thai youth."