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When Tiger Woods stormed to victories in the Masters, Mercedes Championship, Western Open and the Byron Nelson Classic this year, the average weekend golfer apparently wasn't the only one watching.

Plenty of teen-agers were captivated as well, which may explain why golf has become the hottest sport in high school athletics today.

Tom Sprague, the Section VI golf chairman and Sweet Home coach, credits the recent boom to the impact of Woods, the Tour's leading money-winner with over $1.9 million in 18 starts.

With unprecedented numbers trying out, teams in the ECIC, Niagara-Orleans and Niagara Frontier leagues found their rosters stretched to the limit.

Despite making cuts this season, Sweet Home still ended up with a record 22 players. West Seneca had 50 players try out between the two schools. Iroquois kept all 38 players who tried out. Medina's numbers doubled this season to 24 players.

"It's now acceptable for the first time in a long time for kids to play golf," said Sprague. "All of a sudden, this sport is becoming much more attractive. Unfortunately, the thing is we have more kids than we can really handle. We're getting kids who were out for other sports."

The ECIC plays eight-man matches. The Niagara-Orleans, NFL and Msgr. Martin Association play six-man matches. The non-scoring players will either compete in a B match, use the time to practice or take the day off.

One of Sweet Home's top golfers is three-year player Tom Watkins, the only black golfer in the ECIC. Watkins has a nine-hole average of 37.8 and he plays 1 1/2 strokes over par. His build is similar to Woods' and his teammates have been heard to call him Tiger. Watkins has a head cover over his 3-wood that looks like a tiger.

"He (Woods) has opened a few doors," said Watkins, who was competing Monday at the ECIC championships. "I admire him, but I don't look at him as a role model. He's just another great golfer who came along and is blowing everybody out of the water."

Sprague said a player like Woods has made it more socially acceptable for high school athletes to play golf. "Tom played football as a freshman and got killed," said Sprague. "His friends expected him to play football and basketball. As a sophomore, thankfully, he came out for golf."

Watkins was one of 21 golfers who qualified on Monday for the Sectional Tournament in May. Watkins shot a 78 at Transit Valley CC to finish four strokes behind medalist Eric Bouskill of Williamsville East.

Joining Watkins among the 10 finishers were teammates Tim Schara, Bryan Mika and Mark Dimino. Dimino earned an exemption into the Sectionals for having played in the state tournament last year.

The Niagara Frontier League also held its individual Sectional qualifier on Monday at Transit Valley. Senior Frank Garcia of Lewiston-Porter was the medalist with a 74.

Garcia and Brian Rajczak of Grand Island were exempt from qualifying.

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