Giving Golf What Fore!

Tiger, Tiger, still burning bright.

If Tiger Woods knows what's good for him, he'll keep an eye on the Wongluekiet twins.

That's because ten, twelve, maybe fifteen years from now, Aree Song Wongluekiet or his brother, Naree Song, might sneak up on Tiger and snatch away first-place money at, say, the $35 million Arnold Palmer Memorial. The Wongluekiets, from Bradenton, Florida, are fourteen years old, but they already have three wins apiece on the American Junior Golf Association circuit. Last week, Aree tied a tournament record in Alabama with an opening-round 67. His brother shot a 68.

But until the twins grow up -- or the PGA Tour turns the cup into a coffee can for everyone but you-know-who -- the future of men's professional golf looks awfully predictable. With the regularity of the sunrise, Earl and Kultida Woods' only son, Eldrick, will more often than not wire the field like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes. Or Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one. Or an F-18 going against the Wright brothers. So dominant has Woods grown on tour this year -- nine wins in seventeen tournaments, including the U.S. Open, the British Open, the PGA and this past weekend's Canadian Open -- that he's now being compared not only to individual sports stars of the past, but to entire team dynasties. The New York Yankees. The Boston Celtics. The Montreal Canadiens.

Meanwhile, hordes of golf fans tune in every Sunday afternoon to the new game-show hit: Who Wants to Be a Runner-Up?

The Tiger phenomenon has captivated the world. Opera fans who didn't know a seven-iron from a 7-Eleven last year exulted over Woods's nineteen-under-par blowout at the British with the instant authority of sophomores in philosophy class. Inner-city kids who used to think golf was lamer than Scrabble are suddenly talking about how Tiger drew that four-iron into the fifteenth green at Pebble Beach and the moment he knocked it stiff in the pitch darkness at Firestone. Ticket sales explode when he enters a tournament and sag when he doesn't -- just ask the folks down at Castle Pines, who had to conduct a Tiger-less International last month. With him in the hunt, golf's TV ratings shoot off the charts -- even for phony events like the million-dollar exhibition that pitted Woods against twenty-year-old Sergio Garcia in prime time on August 28.

Tiger, Tiger, burning bright. Even the great Jack Nicklaus, whose own storied career is in twilight now and who finds himself slipping into second place on the all-time popularity list, is compelled to recognize his successor's high art. At the PGA, in Louisville, Nicklaus played two rounds with Woods, then paraphrased Bobby Jones. "He is playing a game with which I'm not familiar," Jack said, and joked about his own decline: "I'm playing a game with which I'm not familiar."

To be sure, Woods's game -- a trifecta of unparalleled power, dead-eye finesse and unflappable cool -- has raised the bar for all Tour players. At 24, an age when most pros are still searching for their best, Woods ignites debate about his greatest feat to date. Is it his astonishingly early career Grand Slam? The three majors he won this year? How about his eight PGA titles in 2000? Or the 23 tournaments he's won since leaving Stanford and turning pro in 1996? Hey, just last month he fought off both the flu and a bee sting on his index finger to win the NEC Invitational in Akron, Ohio. Amid the argument, one thing is clear: A sport that only five years ago prided itself on parity, balance and fierce competition week in and week out has now produced a giant who's likely better than Nicklaus. Tiger Woods has become a condition of life, and he's already the career-earnings leader with more than $19 million in the bank. Going into the Canadian Open (which sold out within hours after his entry was announced), he had played 86 PGA tournaments. Translation: He's earned $3,131 per hole.

Add to that his multimillion-dollar endorsements for Nike, Buick, Wheaties, Titleist, American Express and God-knows-what-else, and you've got not only the wealthiest, but also the most recognizable athlete on the planet -- more familiar than Muhammad Ali in his prime or even Michael Jordan in his. For his part, Tiger recognizes the huge impact he's having on the game, especially among kids who've never paid it any mind. "I hope golf can rival some of the core sports in America," he says.

Unless an asteroid hits his house or he takes to a monastery, Woods will likely dominate the game for years to come. Scary thought: Butch Harmon, the golf guru who gave Woods's already-beautiful swing a complete overhaul in 1997, says Tiger has reached only 70 percent of his potential. He's added twenty pounds of muscle to his lean 6'-2" frame in the last year, and after recent laser surgery on his eyes he announced -- as if his rivals needed to hear it -- that the hole now looked bigger. The prospect of a new and improved Tiger Woods justifiably provokes awestruck wonder. "He's arguably the best player of all time right now," says fellow tour pro Curtis Strange. "With all due respect to Nicklaus, Snead, Hogan and Palmer."

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