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IT'S EASY TO FORGET WOODS IS NOT A MATURE TIGER YET

I've come to cut Tiger Woods a break.

I've come to say that I don't care that sales of his shirts and pants are fading.

I don't care that he failed to win a major tournament this year.

I'm not wild about some of the bleeps that come out of his mouth when he blows an easy shot, but I refuse to bury him for that, either.

You see, I remember what it's like being 22.

I remember being on my first job covering a major-league baseball team, feeling like the youngest and dumbest guy in the room -- and for good reason. I did and said stupid stuff. There were times when I deserved a kick in the butt, a whack to my overblown ego.

At 22, most of us are in a dangerous stage -- we're sure we know it all, and we really don't know a thing.

That's the normal 22-year-old.

Now take a 22-year-old who already has won the Masters, a 22-year-old with $100 million in endorsement contracts, a 22-year-old who has turned his family into a corporation.

Then remember this 22-year-old is supposed to be the Jackie Robinson of his sport. He's not just a golfer, he's a social statement -- claimed as a golfing pioneer by everyone from blacks to Asians to American Indians.

If you were that 22-year-old, wouldn't you have days when you act like a jerk?

So, yes, I will cut Tiger Woods a break.

I will grow angry when Golf World's Tim Rosaforte writes: "This Woods kid was a fad, a fluke, a media creation. He hasn't transcended the game. He isn't the messiah. Second coming? How about second rate."

I would remind Mr. Rosaforte that Woods is 22 years old. I would remind him that in this, supposedly an off-year, Woods still ranks third on the PGA money list and remains one of the top golfers in the world.

Later, after a firestorm over the article, Rosaforte claimed it was satire -- only no one got it. Satire or not, I would ask him to remember what he was like when he was 22. I challenge him to walk a few rounds in Woods' cleats.

Finally, I'd take him to meet Walter Baker and his daughter, Keisha Green.

They live in Cuyahoga Heights. Keisha is a fourth-grader at Preston Elementary. Walter Baker is a 16-year veteran of the U.S. Military. I would have Rosaforte walk a few holes with Walter and Keisha as they tracked Tiger Woods at Thursday's NEC World Series of Golf.

Keisha thinks Tiger "is a nice guy."

OK, it's based on commercials. It's based on the nickname, the smile. It's probably even based on the cuddly stuffed Tiger he uses for a club cover.

But Tiger Woods is something special to her, even if she isn't sure why.

Her father knows. First Sgt. Walter Baker talks about Woods "being clean-cut." He talks about Woods "staying out of trouble, saying the right things."

He talks about a role model for minorities.

"To see a young black man accomplishing what he has at his age -- and knowing how much pressure he's under -- well, that means a lot to me," Baker said.

I hear the stories.

I hear that Tiger is not as accommodating with the fans and media.

I hear he's not having as much fun, that he hardly smiles.

Then I read what a guy named Nick Pitt wrote in the London Sunday Times: "Watching the golden boy fail was a particular pleasure. It was a proper reward for his demeanor, and it corrected the ignorant who, knowing nothing of golf, assumed since Woods was better than everyone else, he would invariably beat everyone."

I would take Pitt to meet Lou Farmer and John Berry, a couple of middle-aged black men who were following Woods at Thursday's tournament.

I'd ask Pitt and those who seem delighted that Woods is not dominating the tour to tell that to men such as Farmer and Berry. Go ahead, tell them why you seem to resent this kid so much.

Then I'd demand that he listen to Farmer talk about the mechanics of Woods' swing. Then, go ahead, tell Lou Farmer he knows nothing about golf.

Finally, I'd insist that he listen to John Berry, who says, "Tiger is bigger than golf."

Which means?

"I grew up in Alabama in the 1950s," Berry said. "I remember when it was illegal for a black man to hold a golf club -- illegal, mind you. I play golf myself, and at some courses, I still sense the racism."

How does Woods fit into that?

"He is breaking down the barriers," Berry said. "He is bringing minorities to the game."

And to the tournaments, as was apparent in Woods' gallery.

I try to imagine what it's like to be Tiger Woods, to be 22 and have the dreams and hopes of everyone from John Berry to Lou Farmer to First Sgt. Walter Baker to little Keisha Green on my shoulders.

At 22, I can't say I'd be doing a better job than Tiger Woods -- would you?

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