`THAI-GER MANIA' : WOODS TREATED LIKE ROYALTY DURING VISIT TO MOTHER'S HOMELAND.
A jet-lagged Tiger Woods had barely unbuckled his seat belt after a 20-hour flight when a television crew broadcasting live on four of Thailand's five channels burst into the first-class cabin.
Right behind were politicians, bureaucrats and business executives falling over each other for a chance to shake hands with Woods.
The 21-year-old golfing sensation, whose mother is a native Thai, arrived in Bangkok this week to compete in the Asian Honda Classic, and landed right in the middle of what the Thai press calls ``Tiger Fever.''
In his short stay, Woods will receive a royal decoration, be feted by Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and be asked to help promote the Asian Games, a regional Olympic-style competition Bangkok will host in 1998.
``Thailand has treated us very well,'' Woods said Thursday night. ``I don't know why, but I feel like I'm home. I hope I will be back soon.''
Members of Woods' entourage say that despite his public graciousness, the hype is wearing the golfer out. At Wednesday's pro-am practice round, he quit after 13 holes because of heat exhaustion, jet lag and weariness.
But he recovered as the tournament started, and all traces of illness were gone by Friday. Woods seized a two-stroke overall lead, shooting a course-record 64 on the par-72, 7,016-yard Thai Country Club course. The crowd roared as he sank his final birdie on the 18th hole.
The Thai government makes no bones about whipping up ``Thai-ger mania,'' even though most Thais don't golf and had not heard of Woods until this week.
Thailand's ruling class - politicians, generals, businessmen - love golf. So do expatriates. Of the 4,000 people who turned up Friday at the Thai Country Club to watch Woods, perhaps a quarter were Japanese.
But most Thais are subsistence farmers whose only experience with golf is when their land is expropriated to build links. Public courses are few, as are the chances for most people to learn the game.
``Our government's reaction is too much,'' said Thaweep Thiensai, 18, whose views echoed those of many Thais interviewed. ``They want to give honors to someone who is basically a foreigner, while they do nothing to support our local athletes.''
Thaweep's favorite sport is takraw, a popular game where players kick a rattan ball over a net.
Maj. Gen. Charouck Arirachakaran, secretary-general of Thailand's Olympic committee, told The Nation newspaper that Woods was no Somluck Kamsing, a boxer who won Thailand's first gold medal last year in Atlanta.
``As far as I am concerned, he is only a half-Thai,'' Charouck said. ``He takes part in every tournament as an American national, and there is little positive publicity Thailand can derive out of it. Only his mother is Thai.''
Woods' parents met in 1967. Earl was a lieutenant-colonel in the Green Berets; Kultida was a secretary at the joint U.S.-Thai command in Bangkok.
Tiger Woods was born in 1975 and reared an American. His mother brought him up as a Buddhist - the golfer showed off a religious amulet to reporters Thursday - and believes the religion gives him ``inner peace'' on the course.
Part of Woods' popularity in the United States comes from his role as ground-breaker for African-American youths - his father is African-American - in a sport dominated by whites. In this Southeast Asian country, Woods would have seen a different kind of discrimination.
Under Thai law, if a Thai woman marries a foreign man, she loses her right to buy property and their children assume the father's citizenship. Had the Woods stayed in Thailand, they would have had to remain unmarried for their son to get Thai citizenship without huge bureaucratic hassle.
A proposal to grant Tiger Woods honorary Thai citizenship in light of his athletic achievements has drawn criticism from the parents of other half-Thai children. Some complain of double standards.
Woods said at a news conference that he would be pleased to accept citizenship as ``a special honor from my family,'' but a government spokeswoman denied Friday that such an offer was being made.
For Woods, who received a $480,000 appearance fee, being in Thailand seems to be reward enough.
``This tournament is special, because it's in the land of my mother's birth,'' he said.
Photo: (1) No move by Tiger Woods has gone unnoticed during his visit to Thailand this week.
(2) Thailand native Kultida Woods, reacting to Tiger finishing the 18th hole, has helped heighten interest among Thais in her famous son.