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1997 NISSAN OPEN / RIVIERA COUNTRY CLUB

The Difficult Part Is Over for Woods

Golf: He finishes with a 69, but never makes a move in front of friends.

March 03, 1997|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was solemn most of Sunday, striding purposefully past the adoring crowds that lined the fairways at Riviera Country Club for the final round of the Nissan Open.

Arnold Palmer had his army and Tiger Woods has his troops, a huge and varied gallery that snaked along the pathways. They ranged from knowledgeable to novice, from fans familiar with every aspect of his game to those who were unsure exactly what they were seeing yet were still drawn to him. "He's not doing too good," a woman with two children in tow said after Woods bogeyed the par-four second hole. "Isn't it minus the highest number that's the best?"

Some fans offered encouragement or told Woods he made them proud, but others begged him to touch them, as if that could cure their ailments--or at least straighten their slices.

Persistent though they were, Woods was oblivious. He maintained a businesslike demeanor until he had sunk the final putt of a two-under-par 69, which left him at a respectable three-under 281 for the tournament. With the job done, he lifted his cap to the gallery in salute and allowed himself the emotional release of a small grin.

"I'm relieved more than anything else," he said of his performance, which left him in a seven-way tie for 20th place, nine strokes behind winner Nick Faldo. "It was tough."

Woods had struggled here, admittedly distracted by concern for his father, Earl, who was recovering from triple-bypass surgery at UCLA Medical Center. Earl Woods was allowed to go back home to Orange County on Saturday, and it's no coincidence that Sunday's round was Tiger's best.

Woods started the day one under par and eight strokes behind Faldo. He moved to two under when he birdied the first hole, but dropped to par after he bogeyed the second and fourth holes. Birdies on the sixth, 10th and 11th holes brought him to three under. He lost a stroke by bogeying the par-four 13th, but regained it with a birdie on the 15th. He shot a 35 on the front nine and 34 on the back.

"I maximized what I had," said Woods, whose $14,600 check padded his earnings to $418,050. "Again, I didn't hit the ball real well, but I still scraped around the course and got into the clubhouse under par. . . .

"It was awfully hard. It's real hard to get a deep focus on the golf course. Obviously, I was thinking of more important things than a stupid round of golf. I'm glad I got out of there in one piece and I hope my father is in absolutely perfect health. My dad's actually recovered pretty good. He's a former Green Beret, so he's tough."

Woods' imperfect concentration was obvious to his caddie, Mike "Fluff" Cowan.

"Part of his mind all week was with his father, and that was pretty understandable," said Cowan, whose connection to Woods has spawned a legion of groupies. "He played OK. He just wasn't his same sharp self.

"There are no expectations from our standpoint. You come to play in a golf tournament, you come to win. You don't necessarily come in with expectations. I personally believe expectations will kill you in the game of golf."

What fans expect from him, Woods said, is occasionally a bit excessive. "The only hard part is when you're having dinner and they come up to you and you have food in your mouth," he said. "That's rude. That's your private time. Some people feel it's their right to get an autograph."

He obliged a few fans Sunday, but some children were crying because they couldn't get close enough to ask Woods to sign their souvenirs. A few others were sobbing after being pushed aside in the crush that surrounded Woods as he went to the clubhouse.

"[Fans' support] does help. Sometimes they get a little angry because I hit a bad shot and they're still screaming and yelling," he said. "They want to see the long ball. But they support me and I think that's great."

He had few regrets about his week's work. "I'm glad I played, for a couple of reasons. I just wish I could have gotten into contention so my dad could have watched," he said. "This is my hometown, and it's nice to see people I know, so it's great to play here."

He won't play next week, skipping the Doral Open in Miami. After that, he will take it week by week. "I've had a pretty hectic schedule," he said. "It's time to put my feet up and relax."

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