FIVE years later, Woods sets a new standard

Monday, August 27th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AKRON, Ohio (AP) _ By now it has become almost routine. Tiger Woods hit clutch shots and got a few breaks that always seem to go his way. He left town with his 29th career victory on the PGA Tour, another $1 million check on its way to the bank.

Who could have imagined such dominance five years ago Monday?

That was the day _ Aug. 27, 1996 _ that IMG publicist Bev Norwood called tour officials at the Greater Milwaukee Open and dictated a short statement on Woods' behalf that changed the game like never before:

``This is to confirm that, as of now, I am a professional golfer.''

Five years later, the words are chilling.

``I don't think anybody had any idea he would do what he's done, including him,'' Mark Calcavecchia said. ``I know he expects a lot out of himself, but winning as many tournaments as he's won is beyond anybody's expectations five years ago.''

Told that Monday was the five-year anniversary of the day he turned pro, Woods stared back in disbelief.

``It seems like a long time ago, a lot longer than five years,'' he said. ``That day was a little different. I was playing golf for a living. That was the start of the rest of my career.''

Fresh off becoming the first player in history to win three straight U.S. Amateur titles, Woods arrived at Brown Deer Park Golf Club in Milwaukee dressed in swooshes from head to toe from a Nike deal that seemed outrageous at the time.

He swiftly embarked on a career that has led him to staggering feats.

The youngest Masters champion at age 21. The career Grand Slam in only his fourth season, the fastest and youngest of five players to win all four major championships.

Only 15 other players have won more on the PGA Tour than the 25-year-old Woods. He is tied with Jack Nicklaus for most tour victories before turning 30.

By winning the NEC Invitational in a thrilling seven-hole playoff against Jim Furyk, Woods' career earnings approach $26 million. He makes nearly three times that amount annually in endorsements alone.

``Look back at what expectations were placed on him as an amateur, and what expectations were placed on him as a professional,'' said Notah Begay, a former teammate at Stanford. ``He surpassed everybody's analysis of how he would mature as a player.''

That his first five years as a pro ended at Firestone Country Club was fitting.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem recalled how players would finish their round during the old World Series of Golf, then go into the Firestone clubhouse to eat lunch and watch Woods win the U.S. Amateur with one clutch shot after another.

They knew he was coming.

They just didn't know what was coming.

``The question was ... how good was he going to be?'' Finchem said.

It didn't take long to find out.

Woods won twice in his first seven tournaments as a pro, beating Davis Love III in a playoff at Las Vegas and Payne Stewart after an 18-hole duel at Disney.

He was a pro for two months and earned not only his PGA Tour card, but a spot in the Tour Championship for the top 30 money-winners.

``His amateur record was second to none, but that doesn't necessarily make you come out and be that successful out here,'' Scott Hoch said. ``He's done something nobody else has ever done, something no one has come close to doing in my estimation.''

Woods is measured beyond his 35 worldwide victories and six majors.

He has transcended his sport. He is identified by only one name, the way it was for Michael, Ali and Babe. He already has taken his game to a dozen countries.

``He has made an impact on countries that never would have watched golf,'' said Alistair Johnson, head of the golf division for IMG. ``He's a terrific ambassador for golf.''

He's not cheap. The going rate has soared to about $2 million in appearance money for Woods to play overseas.

But as rich as Woods has become, he has made everyone around him wealthy. He was largely responsible for two television contracts that have allowed PGA Tour purses to triple since he turned pro.

Television ratings for golf are at an all-time high. They double whenever Woods plays.

Golf is suddenly cool.

``He has changed the way the public looks at golf,'' former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson said. ``Tiger has become one of the most prominent worldwide personalities in current times. He has risen beyond golf, beyond sports.''

Eyebrows were raised when Woods signed a $40 million deal with Nike before he even hit his first shot as a pro. Last year, he signed another five-year contract with Nike that could be worth as much as $125 million.

``I was one of the ones who thought Nike was crazy to pay him that much,'' Hoch said. ``By the end of it, I thought they hadn't paid him enough.''

Still, the most ridiculous numbers come from him striking a golf ball.

Since turning pro, he has won nearly more than twice as much as anyone else _ David Duval is next with 13 victories, followed by Phil Mickelson with 10. Woods has won 27 percent of his PGA Tour events, has missed only one cut in his career and has put together one incredible streak after another:

_ Six straight victories, the longest streak in 52 years.

_ 52 consecutive rounds at par or better.

_ An entire season (2000) playing every tournament under par.

Even more tantalizing is where the next five years will lead.

``He finally reached maturity last year,'' his father, Earl Woods, said. ``Now, he's trying to bring under control the resources that he has. And once he does that, it's going to be like stepping on the gas of one of his brand new sports cars. It's gone.''