Tiger Woods profile, published in Open Road magazine
Published in Open Road magazine
"Golf, as we know it, is over," wrote Gary van Sickle in Sports Illustrated in 1996, having watched the 20-year-old Tiger Woods play. "He's not just a promising young Tour pro anymore, he's an era."
Some people might have shrugged and thought Woods a flash in the pan, a jumped up college boy who had made a small name for himself in amateur golf. But could he mix it with the big boys?
It wouldn't take long to find out. Woods won the US Masters at his first attempt in 1997, becoming the youngest ever winner, and has followed up this remarkable feat with a further 58 tournament victories, including a Grand Slam of US Open, Masters, British Open and PGA Championship and becoming the youngest ever world number one at the age of 21 years, 24 weeks.
Yet anyone who had kept a close watch on young Tiger would have predicted great things from him on the golf course. The legend goes that he was imitating his father's golf swing at the age of six months, that he shot a nine-hole round of 48 at the age of three and that he began winning international junior events at the age of eight.
Originally named Eldrick, he was nicknamed Tiger after a colleague of his father's from his days fighting for the US army in Vietnam, where he became a lieutenant colonel.
The young Tiger applied himself fiercely to golf throughout his childhood. Yet it was time enjoyed, as he remembers: "The best year of my life was when I was eleven. I got straight As, had two recesses a day, the cutest girlfriend, and won thirty-two tournaments that year. Everything's been downhill since."
But it comes down to far more than hard work and practice. Tiger Woods has one of the most extraordinary natural sporting talents of anyone in his generation. Strength can be generated, speed can come with hours of training, but putting a small ball into a small cup from 550 yards away in a strong breeze, taking less shots than anyone else in the world, more often than anyone else in history - that is something else.
Woods is already ahead of the curve in terms of international tournament wins, compared to the number of seasons he has played. Jack Nicklaus was previously the most prolific winner, but Woods, should he continue at his current pace, will end up as the world's best ever golfer.
He continues to break records which have stood for decades: his 15-stroke victory in the US Open shattered a record held by Old Tom Morris, who recorded a 13-stroke victory in the British Open of 1862. And in May this year his incredible record of making the cut in 142 consecutive tournaments came to an end, long after he had passed the previous high of 113 set by Byron Nelson in the 1940s.
"This achievement, more than anything else, is a reflection of one's consistency, and consistency, to me, is the name of the game," says the great Jack Nicklaus, who has taken an affectionate and fatherly interest in Tiger, stopping to chat with him whenever they meet.
Other professionals are also full of praise for the young golfer: "It's probably more impressive than all the tournaments he's won," says Jesper Parnevik. "Most guys out here, you have one bad day and go home. Even on a bad day, he was able to scramble around and make cuts. He probably has the toughest heart of anyone who played the game."
This toughness is just one facet of Tiger's approach to his sport. He has not only changed the game through winning so many games, but through his behaviour and deportment. Never anything less than polite, courteous and well mannered, Woods is a consummate professional. He prepares thoroughly, trains for longer than most of his competitors and dresses with great style and decorum.
In an era when so many golfers and other sportspeople become known for their absurd dress or their rude and abusive behaviour or for taking illegal drugs, Woods shows that fame, money and sporting success do not mean you have to drop your manners. "I always have an inner calm on the golf course," says Woods. "I try and stay calm and never let anything get to me."
Even the TV commentators are full of praise for Woods. The doyen of British golf commentary, Peter Alliss, noticed Woods giving his shoes a brief shine as he approached a green and spoke with quiet reverence of how this small act is characteristic of Woods' attention to detail. For those old enough to remember, golf used to be a game played by gentlemen: Woods reminds them that the best qualities of respect and courtesy have not altogether disappeared from the game.
Then there is the charitable work, principally the Tiger Woods Foundation set up as he turned professional in 1996, raising money to help underprivileged young people get access to golf and to improve their prospects. Ethnic minority advocates have looked to Woods as a great example of how colour need not be a bar to advancement.
Woods himself has a complex ethnic mix - his father is half African-American, a quarter American Indian and a quarter Chinese, while his mother is half Thai, a quarter Chinese and a quarter European - but he has been taken up as a role model for young black men. "It doesn't matter whether they're white, black, brown or green," says Woods. "All that matters is I touch kids the way I can through these [sports] clinics and they benefit from them. I have this talent. I might was well use it to benefit somebody."
Occasionally, Woods comes in for criticism: when he dropped out of Stanford University to pursue his golfing career, one journalist wrote; "That works out fine for his bank account, but, for too many others it only reinforces the wrongheaded notion that academics should take a back seat to athletics." Others have criticised his endorsement of gas-guzzling SUV cars or his sponsorship by Nike, a company implicated in under-age, low-wage employment practices.
Some have even argued that because Woods has, at times, been so far ahead of any competition, that the game of golf may suffer, as people lose interest in a no-contest. But since Woods has had some periods of lesser achievement - losing his number one status after 264 weeks in September 2004 and failing to win a major in 2003 or 2004, those critics have fallen silent.
In any case these are rare and minority voices. Few can argue that he acted irresponsibly in going professional in 1996, once he began to win international events. And since Woods has himself funded university scholarships and established an educational centre, his example to others is generally positive. Nike themselves use Woods as a motivational figure to encourage young people from ethnic minorities to get into sport.
But his great ambition still lies on the fairways and greens of the world's top golf courses. "I'm not out to be the best black player," he says. "I want to be the best golfer ever."