THANK HEAVEN FOR nicknames. Eldrick Woods sounds like a mock-tudor townhouse development in some former cornfield, behind the Cracker Barrel and the Hampton Inn off the new bypass exit.

Can you be an elite athlete, a master of the sporting domain, and be called Eldrick? The headlines would certainly suffer:

* Eldrick stalks field, 2 strokes back

* Eldrick lurking as final round approaches

* So-and-so hopes to tame Eldrick

Fortunately for Eldrick, when his father served in Vietnam he had a friend - a South Vietnamese officer, Vuong Dang Phong - whom Earl Woods nicknamed "Tiger" because of his courage. So even though he chose an English name meaning "wise ruler" for the son who was born in 1975, Earl quickly started calling him Tiger. The nickname stuck, despite attempts by teammates at Stanford to refer to him as "Urkel," in reference to Jaleel White's nerdy sitcom character.

There have been rumors at various times of Woods legally changing his name to Tiger, but apparently, that never actually happened.

A Google search for "Tiger Woods" turns up 4,610,000 matches, and though we didn't check every one, we're willing to bet none of them concerned a townhouse development. Eldrick, meanwhile, is mentioned only 11,200 times, and apparently is a town somewhere in Scotland, which is somehow appropriate, given golf's history.

There's something mythic about a one-word nickname. Would George Herman Ruth have had the same mystique if he hadn't been Babe? And what of Edson Arantes do Nascimento, also known as Pelé? Would James Hunter's 224-166 career record have gotten him into the baseball Hall of Fame if Charley Finley hadn't made up the nickname "Catfish" for him?

Fifteen years ago, the name Tiger, dropped into a sporting conversation, might have evoked images of former NHL enforcer Dick "Tiger" Williams or the late Nigerian middleweight, Dick Tiger. Now it has only one possible meaning. A poll of 65 sports business and media executives by the Sports Business Daily recently identified Tiger as the most marketable athlete in North America, collecting almost 70 percent of the first-place votes.

Tiger himself certainly knows the power of an invented monicker - in Tom Callahan's biography, "In Search of Tiger: A Journey Through Golf with Tiger Woods," the golfer reveals that one of his competitive techniques is to give every opponent a nickname.

Wonder what it is for Phil Mickelson? *