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Tiger Woods: Golf's Own Johnny Appleseed

Wherever he goes, this whiz-kid gathers a growing number of fans to the game

If Tiger Woods should happen to win this week's United States Open Golf Championship, giving him back-to-back major titles in his first full season as a professional, he could set off a massive geologic event in pursuit of Big Win No. 3.

"The British Isles might sink as all the people rush from one side of the fairway to the other at the British Open," forecasts Mark Silverman, editor and publisher of Golf Range and Recreation Report. Silverman is among the many people in the golf industry keeping tabs on Tigermania.

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According to the National Golf Foundation, American participation numbers in the game have flattened out in the 1990s after an impressive surge, yet Woods is perceived as a Johnny Appleseed with tremendous powers to promote golf worldwide. His mixed-race background supposedly makes him the ideal person to expand the sport's demography, with a huge assist from globe-shrinking communications technology.

Nike chief Phil Knight, whose company inked Woods to a $40 million endorsement contract before he ever took his first pro shot, told Fortune magazine that Woods "could easily be as widely known around the world as any athlete today."

Anyone who doubted that Woods was the genuine article before this year's Masters tournament certainly had to be persuaded of his star quality after his record-breaking mid-April victory.

"I never thought I would have the lead like I did," he says, looking back at his 12-shot triumph, the largest margin for a Masters victory ever. "You envision dueling it out with [Nick] Faldo, or [Jack] Nicklaus or [Tom] Watson, someone who is always tough to beat down the stretch, or birdieing 16, 17, and 18 to get into a playoff. But never in the fashion that I did."

CBS's final-round telecast was proceeded by an infomercial-like special on Woods's life, produced by the agency that represents him. "Tiger Woods: Son, Hero and Champion," might have seemed self-serving for any other player beginning his adult career, but it fed the public's curiosity to learn about the three-time winner of the US Amateur title and seemed to fit.

After the Masters, Woods took several weeks off from tournament play, but his life has been anything but relaxing or private. He's made various public appearances, including at a restaurant opening and to throw out the first pitch before a Texas Rangers baseball game. He declined to accept President Clinton's invitation to take part in the Jackie Robinson anniversary ceremonies in New York. The young champion said he was tired and disappointed that he'd only been asked after winning the Masters.

It's hard to imagine an established sports star turning down the president, but Tiger is so big right now that his decision met with little flak. In fact, his post-Masters public approval level exceeded that of military heroes Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell after the Gulf war, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll.

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Woods has the world at his feet, and some of his fellow pros begging for mercy (including veteran Fuzzy Zoeller whose attempt at racially charged humor required a personal apology to Tiger).

Meanwhile, the commercial opportunities have expanded. Woods signed a lucrative deal to serve as a spokesman for American Express the week he played in a tournament sponsored by MasterCard. In a print ad trumpeting the new affiliation, Woods's concise message is: "I plan to do more."

He has, winning the GTE Byron Nelson Classic in Irving, Texas, in mid-May. The following week, he contended until double-bogeying the next-to-last hole to finish tied for fourth at the Colonial tournament in Fort Worth, Texas.

Finally, in Ohio at the Memorial, Jack Nicklaus's tournament, Woods hit a bad patch, the kind that every player experiences but which seems so uncharacteristic for the year's only triple winner. He tied for 67th. In hopes of regaining his edge, Woods spent last week practicing under the watchful eye of instructor Butch Harmon, who calls him "the smartest player since Nicklaus."

Woods could match one of Nicklaus's most impressive playing feats if he wins the US Open at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. Nicklaus was the last player to win the Masters and US Open back-to-back when he did it in 1972.

Whether Woods can call up another title, virtually on demand, is golf's question of the hour. Whatever the answer, though, he's fanning the flames of new watching and playing interest in the game, especially among the younger generation.

"One thing that probably has been keeping [minority youngsters] back is that we did not have a champion like Tiger," says Lee Elder, the first black to qualify for the Masters in 1974 and a hero of Woods's.

Not content to be simply a TV role model, Woods has established his own foundation. It is introducing the game to many youngsters, including city dwellers, via a series of clinics in Orlando, Dallas, New York, Chicago, Memphis, and Miami.

Bill Dickey, the executive director of a separate organization called the National Minority Golf Foundation, has been actively nurturing minority youth golfers for many years. He is encouraged by the influx of newcomers but is concerned that they could be turned off if the right programs and facilities are not available.

"It's a tough game to learn, and you can't learn it by just picking up a club and swinging it," he says during a call to his Phoenix office. "Clinics are great, but they do no more than create sizzle to the steak. We've got to find programs to put these kids in, and you can't handle 100 kids with three or four people."

Dickey is pleased to see various organizations, including the PGA Tour and PGA of America, an organization of teaching pros, beginning to get on the bandwagon. "It's a matter of everyone working together to try to solve the problem," he adds.

"The big associations have a lot of money right now if they can be prodded, and they're talking a pretty good game," says Nick Seitz, senior vice-president and editor in chief of Golf Digest. "The PGA Tour is awash with money ... and they're always advertising that their No. 1 goal is charity. So if they really put their money where they say their sentiments are, quite a lot could happen."

One of the problems, Seitz says, is that golf is not currently geared to handle the masses and may not be able to move quickly enough. Creating affordable access points to the game could be another hurdle. "Even though Tiger is going to increase the desire of kids to pay from disadvantaged areas, they're still going to have a problem with the economics of it," says Mark Silverman of the driving range association.

Already there are signs that greater activity at some of the entry points - driving ranges, par-3 and pitch-and-putt courses, and public teaching complexes such as the one Golf Digest just opened in Edison, N.J. - could be part of the answer.

"We need a lot of that kind of development," Seitz says. "If people figure out there's good money in it, it will probably happen."

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