Originally created 11/13/97

Tiger Woods brought a different crowd under golf's tent



The scene was repeated in city after city. Tiger Woods launched one of his majestic tee shots then stomped down the fairway, his stoic stare in place until a child's voice curved the corners of his mouth into a wide smile.

"Hey Tiger! Over here!" would come the high-pitched cry.

"Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!" several youngsters would chant in unison.

At times there were simply squeals of delight. Always, it was the calls of the young -- and not the bellows of the old -- that touched Woods.

In Dublin, Ohio, at the Memorial Tournament a 7-year-old girl waited for a glimpse of Woods, clutching her stuffed Tiger doll as her parents nudged her forward to ask for an autograph.

At the Byron Nelson Classic near Dallas, school groups and church groups of pre-teens swarmed the autograph booth waiting for Woods' autograph.

Even at Augusta National -- the most staid of golf courses -- a young boy reached out and patted the startled Woods on the back after he played a shot on No. 15 in the final round of his historic Masters victory.

"They can relate to me," the 21-year-old Woods said earlier this year about the reception he gets from young fans. "I'm closer to their age than anyone else out here. I'm not much older than them."

And while his most noticeable impact on galleries was the increase in young people, also apparent was the growing number of minorities following Woods, whose father is black and whose mother is Thai.

The challenge now for golf is to build on perhaps the single most high-profile year the game has had since Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam in 1930.

If part of the enormous impact of Woods in his first full year on the PGA Tour was to get a new generation -- and a new demographics -- to look at the game, the trick now for golf is to keep these fans there.

If Woods brought the word "inclusion" to golf, the buzzwords as the game heads toward a new century are "access" and "affordability."

Toward that end, a coalition of major U.S. golf organizations functioning through the World Golf Foundation will announce Thursday a multimillion-dollar plan to create hundreds of new golf facilities over the next 10 years to bring a more diverse group of people into the game.

The project, called The First Tee, will be introduced in New York and Detroit on Thursday and in Houston on Friday.

In major urban areas, the obstacles to growth are clear: Municipal courses are overcrowded, public courses are overpriced and private courses are overly exclusive. Those young people who do find their way to the game have difficulty locating adequate practice facilities and instruction.

And in a sport in which the National Golf Foundation says only 3 percent of golfers in the United States are black and only 2 percent are Hispanic, Woods' success represented a significant breakthrough in terms of expanding the popularity and -- down the road -- the talent pool for the game.

"The most important challenge the game has is to build on the unprecedented level of interest in golf by kids and women and minorities and turn that into long-term growth," LPGA commissioner Jim Ritts said Wednesday.

Tiger Woods got kids and minorities onto the golf course in 1997. If the game is to continue to grow, it must figure out how to keep that new audience on the golf course -- this time not as fans but as players.