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NOVEMBER 27, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 21


Paul Lakatos/AFP.
Tiger Woods keeps his eye on the ball, but some Thai fans feel he is missing the bigger picture.

Pulling Tiger's Tail
Protests and other distractions bring the world's top golfer down to earth in his mom's native Thailand
By TIM NOONAN Bangkok

With a golf club in his hands, Tiger Woods has the ability to silence the most riotous of occasions. It's no small feat, really, considering the boisterous galleries that surround the No. 1 golfer in the world. The 18,000 spectators following Woods last week during the Johnnie Walker Classic at the Alpine Golf & Sports Club in Bangkok were frantically jostling for a glimpse of the man. But the chaos suddenly halted as tournament marshals pleaded for silence. Thailand's yelping legions of fans grew mute for the Tiger.

Putting for a short birdie, Woods begins his backswing. A mere second from contact, a phone rings, the crowd moans and Woods, visibly upset, steps away. He shakes his head, glares and then realigns himself before proceeding to miss his putt. Whatever else Woods is—the most famous athlete in the world, a ridiculously wealthy corporate pitchman, a multiethnic role model—he is still human, if just barely.

Over the past year, Woods has put together a run the likes of which professional golf had never seen before. He has won nine tournaments, including the U.S. Open, British Open and the PGA Championship. His total prize money and appearance fees will top $12 million, while endorsements will bring in an additional $50 million. But while Tiger can count on tournament marshals and security personnel to control the throngs on the course, off it the going sometimes gets tough, as was evident during his return to Thailand, the homeland of his mother Kultida. A beleaguered Woods arrived in Bangkok fresh off a controversy with the U.S. PGA tour that has seen him question the equitable distribution of, among other things, TV income and which has prompted a chorus of critics claiming he believes he is bigger than the game.

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Woods' first trip to Thailand as a professional in early 1997 was a three-ring circus. Politicians and TV crews boarded his plane when it touched down in Bangkok before he could unbuckle his seat belt. Woods would describe it as the craziest week of his life; he was hoping things would be a little saner this time around. "I always enjoy coming back to Thailand," he says. "It's always neat to be back among family and friends." Not everyone was so enthusiastic, however. Some Thais feel he should donate more of his wealth to their country; others resent the fact that he lends his name to companies that, in their view, exploit millions of low-skilled local workers. "He basically has forgotten the Thai people," says Prasong Pathom, a medical doctor who followed Woods around during day one of last week's tournament. "He is a great golfer and has done some good with his foundation in getting equipment for young kids, but a number of Thais see it as nothing more than a token gesture."

Woods reportedly received an appearance fee of $1 million to compete in Bangkok while unwittingly taking on the role of political kingmaker. Thaksin Shinawatra, the telecom billionaire and prohibitive frontrunner to become Prime Minister in January's election, is reported to have footed the bill for Woods in return for a couple of photo-ops. As a council member of Kasetsart University, Thaksin was also pivotal in awarding Woods an honorary doctorate of philosophy in sport. Woods' handlers informed the university that he was on a tight schedule, however, and that the ceremony could only be 15 minutes long and held at his downtown hotel instead of at the university. "It took him 15 minutes to get something that took me four years," one student complained in a local paper. After the ceremony, a clearly flustered Dr. Woods was greeted in his hotel lobby by a noisy group of 100 fired employees of sportswear giant Nike (which has a $100 million endorsement deal with Tiger), protesting the layoff of 1,016 workers in September. "Woods should be able to understand why that company can give him so much money," says Lek Junya Yumprasert, a Thai labor committee official. "It would take workers here 72,000 years to make that kind of money." Woods was swallowed by a phalanx of security men and quickly exited without comment.

Such is the circus that has become Tiger Woods, a young man who has powers of concentration that don't normally seem all that human. When asked if the off-course distractions affected his game, Woods replies: "No, it doesn't affect hitting a high draw with a three iron." Did he ever envision such momentous achievements? "Successful as a player, yes. But not the hysteria around it off the golf course. No one can ever prepare you for that. I mean, look at this, this is not what you find for most 24-year-olds on a daily basis."

Back in his most comfortable habitat, the solitude of the golf course, Woods prepares to tee off. "That will be enough of the cameras, please," his caddie Stevie Williams yells to onlookers flaunting the tournament ban on picture-taking. "The fans were generally pretty well behaved," Woods would say afterward, "but there were a few moments when they threw me off." Only a few. On the 17th hole, Woods' playing partner, New Zealand's Michael Campbell, hits a towering drive; Tiger booms his a good 30 m farther. A posse of fans scrambles up a hill to watch the balls land. "Whose is that?" asks one. "That one's Campbell's, he's human," says another, who then points up the fairway. "And that one's Tiger's. He's not." He's half right.

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