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Watch Woods grow, slowly

Since the 1950s, when Ike commanded the White House and Howard Stern was an innocent child, Arnold Palmer has been golf's king of magnetism.

Jack Nicklaus came along in the 1960s to become the game's dominant player by winning six Masters tournaments, five PGA Championships, four U.S. Opens and three British Opens.

But now, dear idols, make way ...

Tiger Woods has powered onto the world's renowned courses at age 21 with the celebrity of boy Beatles storming 1960s stages. A child star who could energize golf more than Michael Jordan has elevated basketball.

Beginning today, Woods will spend the weekend playing Arnie's own tournament, the Bay Hill Invitational. Tiger's crowd will be far more monstrous than any other, more graced by youth and color and promise.

It's too early to anoint Woods as a 21st-century certainty to demonstratively blend the gracious personality of Palmer and the artistic excellence of Nicklaus. Nonetheless, only a closed mind would suggest the kid does not possess the raw materials.

"I'm halfway through my first year as pro," Woods said. "Still learning how much my body and mind can tolerate. Trying to grow wisely. To make good decisions."

He is engulfed by fascination and adulation. Golf has never seen his attention-getting equal. Not even Nicklaus or Palmer. Tiger is like a rock star in spiked shoes.

Still, from a predominantly awe-struck public, you hear vocal detractors. Critics complaining about rookie pro Woods spouting on-course anger and complaining about overzealous photographers.

Let's assess.

Tiger is a three-time U.S. Amateur champion, a professional since late August. Still a little PGA Tour shaver from California who is proving to be anything but a predictable, faceless, emotionless clone.

I'm for that.

Tiger reacts to heroic shots, often with a fierce pumping of a fist. On the flip side, he has shown fuming propensity to slam one of his weapons to the ground in rage after a botched putt or some other underachieving effort.

Dozens of anti-Woods letters are flooding the United States Golf Association, custodian of rules and guardian of decorum in the American version of the old Scottish game.

"I don't mind those letters," Woods said, "but just be fair. If you're going to be critical of me, take the same shots at others (who show similar emotions). I'm not perfect. When I do something wrong, I understand people getting on my back. But am I the only guy who ever does any such thing?"

Objection sustained!

I'm with Woods on this one. At 21, he already has made a fortune and won on the PGA Tour three times, but he still toddles along on virtual training wheels. Even in golf, displays of disgust need not be viewed as mortal sins. Give me a grimacing, grunting Craig Stadler over a boring Mark Brooks.

Modern pro golfers show too few human emotions. It's marvelous when a Hale Irwin celebrates a U.S. Open triumph by taking a gleeful jog around the final green, high-fiving the gallery. It's beautiful to see Ben Crenshaw win a Masters and immediately crumble in tears. I don't mind seeing Stadler fume. He reminds me of me.

"It's not always easy to be Tiger Woods," the young man said. "I've got some unique challenges, but also unique advantages. I hope, as we go along, the world and I get to better understand each other."

Tiger's official residence is in Orlando, but it's hardly home. California is where his family and heart are based. Florida's lack of a state income tax probably caused the Orange County move.

Being on a golf course is the easiest, most natural part of Tiger's accelerating life. Going out to eat is near-impossible. He can find little peace at a theater or concert. He goes to no shopping malls. In some ways, Woods is imprisoned by celebrity.

Let's work to understand him. To encourage. To chide, but only when common sense demands. Tiger is a unique animal, but he's 21. Let's keep reminding ourselves. When he goofs, we should scream for Woods to give us a few penal push-ups. But, please, let's hold the court-martial.

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