IN SEARCH OF TIGER

A Journey Through Golf With Tiger Woods

By Tom Callahan

Crown. 229 pp. $23.95 Among golf's beat reporters, Tom Callahan is a rarity: He actually covers tournaments by walking the fairways. And where's the rest of the pack during the day? In the press tent, mostly, lounging before TV monitors as the latest run of birdies is broadcast. After the day's final putt goes down, the scribes file stories. The only ground covered is the exhausting yardage between their press-tent seats and the free food in the chow line.

Early in these free-flowing pages, where sociology, commentary and locker-room storytelling are deftly blended, Callahan displays an appetite for legwork that goes well beyond a few miles of golf terrain. He hies to Vietnam, on the hunt for Col. Nguyen Phong -- Tiger Phong, it turns out, the military buddy of Earl Woods, the Green Beret officer who would father the golf prodigy. Callahan never found Tiger Woods's namesake. Tiger Phong died in 1976 when Tiger Woods, of Cypress, Calif., was 8 months old. But Callahan did find the Vietnamese soldier's family. It seems he was "a wild fighter" who liked "to do everything perfect." Plus, he had a beautiful smile. A good man to name a son after, at least after christening him Eldrick.

Although it was a long way to and from Ho Chi Minh City, Callahan's exertion is meant to emphasize the closeness of Tiger Woods to his father. They were instant golfing pals, with Tiger the toddler taking his early swings at 10 months. He was a tournament golfer at 5. At 13, he was subduing Pebble Beach. Earl Woods had three children from a previous marriage; Tiger is the only one from his second. The boy became achievement-driven -- on his own, and with minimal pushing by his father. "Tiger," writes Callahan, "was never the oppressed child made to practice the violin after school. Golf was his fun. . . . Only in terms of celebrity and privacy has he ever yearned to be a normal person. Tiger likes scuba diving, he says, 'because the fish don't know who I am.' As far as I can tell, he has never looked back over his shoulder too longingly at anything."

More than other sports, golf lends itself to father-son camaraderie. Callahan, an engaging prose stylist who has written more than 30 cover stories for Time, makes the most of this by devoting seven chapters to the stories of sons who came to golf greatness tutored by their demulcent fathers. These include Ernie Els, the South African who kissed his father, Neels, after leaving the 72nd hole as the winner of the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club. Nearly all the fathers were men of kindness, including Earl Woods, who says of his iconic child: "If Tiger had wanted to be a plumber, I wouldn't have minded, as long as he was a hell of a plumber. The goal was for him to be a good person. He's a great person. He always had a gentle heart."

Little is here about Tiger Woods the high school and college student. Passing mention is made of his Stanford University pal Jerry Chang, now in law school. He aspires to be Tiger's lawyer, no doubt boning up on the intricacies of contract and tax-loophole law. Woods himself is a college dropout, having left Stanford after two years. Unlike schoolmate Notah Begay, who stayed to earn a degree, he won't be able to advise little kids to stay in school and get an education.

Tom Callahan has kicked around too many locker rooms, stadiums and press briefings to be awed by the latest athletic demigod. Whether it's a Woods, a Jordan, a Gretzky or a McGwire, these superstars have brief reigns at the top. While there, they commercialize themselves, having neither the courage nor the willpower to resist the marketing come-ons of corporate America.

Callahan keeps a professional distance from Woods. Intellectually, they aren't a match: Woods is a one-dimensional entertainer absorbed with competitive golf and not much else. Should he use his celebrity in positive ways off the golf course -- "You have this ability," Nelson Mandela told him, "do some good with it" -- then the whole world, not the mere and limited golf world, will have been touched for the better. Otherwise, he may end up as one more athlete who helped sell things -- in Tiger's case, Buicks and Nike golf balls.