LPGA welcomes a most familiar name -- Woods
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- If turning today's LPGA into at least an occasional water-cooler topic could be decided by a casting call, the part would be locked up.
Actually, Cheyenne Woods wouldn't even have to read for the role. Globally famous uncle, attractive smile, outgoing personality, college degree, the stars and stripes next to her name. Are you kidding? Sign her up, she's perfect.
For the sake of women's golf, if it were only that simple. But it's not. Then again, that's the true beauty of sports: You can't just look the part, you have to earn it.
Tiger Woods' niece -- who recently graduated from Wake Forest and turns 22 in July -- will get the expected headlines this week as she makes her debut as a professional at the LPGA Championship, the women's second major tournament of the season.
That comes because of her name, and she's obviously very well aware of that. And to some degree, her ability to gather endorsement deals also will be aided by her link to Uncle Tiger, whom she just watched win the Memorial on Sunday. But in the long run -- which won't take that long, actually -- she will have to stand on her own talent and results. Which is exactly what she wants.
"Now that this is actually my job and my career, I'm really excited to be out here and so thankful to be playing this week," Woods said Tuesday as she met with the media at Locust Hill Country Club. "Finishing school felt really good, never having to write another paper or take an exam. Turning pro is awesome; this is what I've dreamed about my entire life. I've been playing since I was 5 years old. The fact that I'm actually professional feels amazing."
Excited, awesome, amazing? There had to be a time, many years ago, when Tiger felt those emotions in the fresh way that Cheyenne does now -- whether he ever verbalized it quite like that or not.
Of course, he was publicly identified very early in life -- by his own father and the golf world in general -- as a kind of "savior" for the game and even sports as a whole. Grandiose as the expectations were, he has more than lived up to them, his personal-life travails of the past couple of years notwithstanding.
Cheyenne Woods doesn't carry such burdens. She looks, in fact, as if she doesn't carry any.
"This is the first time in my life that I'm focusing strictly on golf," she said. "There's no school; every day is golf, working out, really focusing on my career. I'm really looking forward to that."
Cheyenne's father is Earl Woods Jr., Tiger's older brother. Born and raised in Phoenix, she first swung a club in her grandfather's garage at age 2 and took to golf right away.
"My grandfather didn't push me into the game. I kind of picked it up on my own and fell in love with it," Cheyenne said of the late Earl Woods, Tiger's father. "But he was always there to kind of guide me through my junior career and help my family."
Cheyenne won two Arizona high school state titles at Xavier College Prep, then went to Wake Forest, where she won the 2011 ACC women's individual title.
She and her Demon Deacons teammates advanced twice to the NCAA championships, where her best finish was a tie for 55th in 2011. This past season, she tied for seventh in the ACC tournament and tied for 35th in the NCAA East Regional. Her 73.7 stroke average led Wake Forest, and she was All-ACC for the third consecutive season.
So she had a successful college career, if not a spectacular one. She never thought of leaving school early, content to get her degree in communications and prepare more gradually for the LPGA tour.
By contrast, the player who preceded Woods in the tournament's interview room Tuesday was fellow American Lexi Thompson, who turned pro at age 15 and won her first LPGA title at 16. Thompson is already a more proven commodity in terms of her career potential, and she's one of the key faces in the LPGA's ever-hopeful marketing strategy.
If Woods' game develops to the point that she is even a periodic contender, the tour will seize that for all it's worth, which it should. Pragmatically speaking, even fame that is to some degree borrowed will be welcome for women's golf.
The two LPGA players over the past 15 years who truly broke through to become household names in the United States are Annika Sorenstam, who is retired, and Michelle Wie, whose heavily hyped youthful exploits still overshadow her career as an adult.
It's important to note, though, that Wie is only 22, just nine months older than Woods. Because their paths have been so different, it feels as if Wie has been around forever while Woods is a new face.
It's a face, by the way, that bears a noticeable resemblance to Tiger's. While their temperaments don't seem similar, Cheyenne said she may have more of an "inner Tiger" than first meets the eye.
"If I put myself in a pressure-packed situation," she said, "I think I'm able to knuckle down and get through it."
She is playing here at the LPGA Championship on a sponsor's exemption. She already has earned her way into the next major, qualifying for the U.S. Women's Open in July. She hopes to get into a few more events this summer and then go to Q-school in the fall.
She doesn't seem in any way annoyed -- at least not yet -- by the many questions about Tiger. Especially as a communications major, she surely has thought this through: The queries have been inevitable as she takes each step further in golf.
If she doesn't play well as a pro, the questions about Tiger -- and everything else -- will stop. If she does play well, she still will be asked about him, but less and less as time goes by.
Cheyenne Woods can make her own name, but she knows that nobody ever sheds extraordinarily famous relatives. Not that she'd want to.
"He's always been so supportive, and I'm so thankful," she said of Tiger. "The media is something I've dealt with since I was about 12 years old, having the last name of Woods.
"The best thing is just having him as an uncle and having him there to support me. Knowing I can consult him whenever I need him. The most difficult thing is dealing with the expectations and pressure. But I have dealt with it for a long time, and I've been able to play my own game and just try to do my own thing and not worry about what others are thinking."