Tuesday 21 November 2017

The world awaits the relaunch of Tiger 2.0

After dominating the world of golf when he first burst on to the scene, Tiger Woods is going to attempt it once again as he relaunches his career. Photo: Umit Bektas/Reuters
After dominating the world of golf when he first burst on to the scene, Tiger Woods is going to attempt it once again as he relaunches his career. Photo: Umit Bektas/Reuters

Dermot Gilleece

They were an improbable duo - the tall, athletic young black man and his dumpy, middle-aged caddie with grey hair and drooping moustache. But on this weekend in 1997, Tiger Woods and Mike 'Fluff' Cowan captivated the golfing world through television images from the La Costa Resort in San Diego.

It was the beginning of Woods' first full year as a tournament professional, which would really take off three months later amid the majestic pines of Augusta National. Now 20 years on and with a few caddies in between, he is about to embark on another beginning - at the ripe old age of 41.

Back in '97, Pádraig Harrington was banking on similar experience from Tallaght's John O'Reilly as he, too, learned his craft on this side of the Atlantic. And for all Fluff's time on tour, you still imagine he wouldn't have been in the same league as his legendary Irish counterpart in the matter of raw survival instincts.

Yet Woods declared, "I think Fluff is the best caddie in the world," about a bagman who had been 18 years on the PGA Tour with Peter Jacobsen. Though he would let his guard slip a few years later, Cowan was then shrewd enough to know his place.

"Any caddie who thinks he makes the player is full of bullscheidt," was his colourful response. "It's the player who makes the caddie. We are not the show. Any caddie who thinks that, he is isn't going to last long."

Recalling their coming-together the previous August for the player's professional debut, he added: "It took me just two days - the practice day and the pro-am - to club Tiger."

After handing his man the driver on the first tee on the Thursday, he watched approvingly as the ball travelled 337 yards before coming to rest.

"I don't know why we hit if off so well," said Woods. "I just think we see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, especially golf."

So, did Cowan view his young master as a genius? Not quite. Genius to him was Jerry Garcia, the late, lamented leader of the American rock group Grateful Dead. Indeed when Garcia died in 1995, Cowan went into mourning for two weeks before bouncing back into action - just like a piece of fluff, which we're told earned him his nickname.

I remember that the feeling at the time was that he and Woods were destined for the long haul, yet they would have only one Major victory together. According to The Washington Post, their parting in early March 1999 had to do with an article in Golf Magazine in which Cowan revealed his salary of $1,000 per week and bonuses of up to 10 per cent of his employer's winnings.

Later that year, he began what proved to be a more enduring relationship with Jim Furyk, winner of the 2003 US Open and the 2010 FedEx Cup, and last week's nominee as the 2018 US Ryder Cup captain. As for Woods, the Steve Williams era had begun.

Meanwhile, those early months of 1997 were punctuated by warnings of physical problems for Woods down the line, though nobody connected with him seemed to be listening - least of all his coach, Butch Harmon.

"So far, we've seen only the tip of the iceberg where this young man's talent is concerned," said Harmon in the wake of a thrilling play-off victory over Tom Lehman in the Mercedes Championships on January 12, the opening event of the 1997 season.

"Where learning is concerned, Tiger is like a sponge, the way he soaks everything in. He has the potential to get so much better, it's frightening."

Harmon, who had been three years with Woods at that stage, went on to suggest that his charge could hit the ball considerably further, if he so desired.

"His 340-yard drives may lead people to question how it's possible to keep the ball straight while hitting flat out," he said. "In fact, Tiger hits it that far swinging at 75 per cent capacity.

"His grip, posture, alignment and ball position are textbook. The swing itself is superb mechanically and is performed with excellent balance and rhythm. Believe me, he has another 40 yards on call if he really needs it."

The manner of the play-off on the 188-yard seventh hole could hardly have been more emphatic. With a six-iron, Woods hit the ball to within a foot of the pin for a tap-in winning birdie. All of which tended to overshadow his dramatic climb up the leaderboard in a third-round 65, which he finished with four successive birdies - including the 562-yard 17th, having reached it in two. There, in sodden conditions, a three-wood second shot carried a remarkable 257 yards.

Tour veterans were suitably impressed, even staggered. A notable exception, however, was two-time US Open champion Cary Middlecoff, who believed a price had to be paid for such prodigious hitting. "He can play, but he's going to hurt himself," he said.

Bluntly prophetic, the qualified dentist added: "A bad back put me out of business and the way Tiger swings he's going to tear his back up before he reaches his full potential.

"The body just can't stand the way he jerks his hip and everything at impact. They talked about how long Freddie Couples was, but he's hurting now."

In view of his youth and athleticism, however, it was hardly surprising that Woods saw himself as effectively bullet-proof at that time. And in common with many observers, I remember thinking he was probably right. Given we had never seen golf of this quality before, why shouldn't this extraordinary sportsman be capable of absorbing with impunity the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?

From his debut in Milwaukee he went on to make eight cuts from eight PGA Tour events in 1996, winning the Las Vegas Invitational and the Walt Disney Classic and finishing third in two others. That, after becoming the first player to capture a third successive US Amateur title earlier that year.

And by way of reward, the cheque for $216,000 which he stuffed into his pocket at La Costa brought him to $1m in tournament earnings in a record-quick time of less than five months.

His return to PGA Tour action in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines on January 26 bridges a 17-month gap due to back problems since the Wyndham Championship in August 2015.

And while Torrey Pines holds great memories for him, including an amazing triumph in the 2008 US Open, deep down he will be looking towards the US Masters in early April.

You wonder about his thoughts as he contemplates that iconic car ride up Magnolia Lane. They could include his early, carefree days as an amateur in the Crow's Nest accommodation of the clubhouse, and the four times he donned the coveted green jacket. Or in darker moments there might be reflections on the public censure administered in 2010 by Augusta chairman Billy Payne following the shameful revelations of the previous winter.

There's a famous scene in the movie, In the Heat of the Night, when the local southern sheriff, played by Rod Steiger, mischievously asks a visiting black police detective named Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) what they call him back in Philadelphia. "They call me Mr Tibbs," comes the sharp reply. Colin Montgomerie may have had the movie in mind when talking in the media centre on the Friday of the 1997 Masters.

"My chances depend on Mr Woods," said the Scot with due deference, from a position three strokes behind the 21-year-old leader. "This course suits him better than me and if he continues what he's doing, then all we can do is shake his hand."

It is not recorded whether Montgomerie, in a share of 30th place on the Sunday afternoon, stayed around to congratulate the winner.

For my own part, I had the good fortune that evening of meeting Lee Elder, the first black competitor in the Masters, in a local restaurant.

Thinking of Virgil Tibbs, I wondered if Woods had secured himself future acceptance by the white community, including his fellow professionals. Elder smiled.

"When you're as good as Tiger, you don't have any problem making friends," he said.

Enemies, it would turn out, would be of his own doing.

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