Tiger's way


There he is on television, pitching cars that his parents should be driving or knocking his new brand of golf ball into a paper cup on a New York City bridge. There he is again, staring out at you from the cereal aisle of the supermarket. And there he is, too, being reacclaimed as the best player in the world after winning last month's U.S. Open by a record 15 strokes.

Tiger Woods is everywhere these days, doing everything that has been expected of him since he was barely old enough to hold a golf club. This week, Woods will be at the British Open in St. Andrews, Scotland, trying to become the fifth, and youngest, player to complete a career Grand Slam.

The world will be watching.

With Woods, 24, it usually is.

If he isn't yet the most recognizable athlete on the planet, if he hasn't yet passed mentor Michael Jordan in terms of visibility and marketability and just plain earning power, it won't be long before he does. Less than four years after turning pro, Woods is no longer a phenomenon; he's approaching legend status.

"He transcends sports," said Rick Burton, the director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, a program dedicated to the study of business trends in sports. "He's young in a sport that's traditionally old, multiracial in a sport that's traditionally white. He comes across as the everyman."

Or, at least the everyman who, given the income he generates and the sport he plays, could become the world's first billion-dollar athlete.

It is not merely because of the records Woods has set - his margin of victory at Pebble Beach last month was the largest ever in a major championship, breaking a record that had stood for 138 years - and those he pursues, such as the seemingly untouchable mark of 18 major professional titles set by the legendary Jack Nicklaus.

It is because of the personality Woods has become on and off the course. From the moment he turned pro after winning the last of his record three consecutive U.S. Amateurs, Woods has been a lightning rod for hero worship, as well as criticism.

"He's Elvis," said Burton. "We found Elvis and he looks like Tiger Woods. ... But I also think Tiger is closer to the face of who the world will look like in the future. The world won't be black or white, it will be all gradations of black and white. Tiger is the first athlete who can't be defined racially."

What Woods has done during his already remarkable career is comparable to few modern-day athletes.

His widespread commercial appeal is similar to that of Jordan, the retired Chicago Bulls star considered by many to be the greatest player in basketball history. But Woods has done more in golf than Jordan did for basketball by broadening the interest in what has generally been perceived as a highbrow and somewhat segregated sport.

At ease in two worlds

He is widely accepted by all segments of society: rich and poor, young and old, white and black, male and female. Unlike Muhammad Ali, who was reviled early in his career by much of white America for his political and religious views - not to mention his audacious behavior - Woods is cautious to the point of being boring with his public comments.

Unlike Jordan, who was often perceived by African-Americans as selling out to corporate America without giving much back to the less-advantaged kids who wore his high-priced line of sneakers, Woods has smartly positioned himself in both worlds by conducting clinics through his own foundation while engineering deals such as the one he is currently negotiating with Nike that will be worth a reported $100 million over five years.

"We have had two athletes in my time - Muhammad Ali and Jordan - that draw from outside their sports," NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol has said. "Every indicator we have says that Tiger is the next one."

That was certainly evident during last month's U.S. Open. The final two rounds drew an average overnight rating of 7.5 with an 18 share, meaning that more than 7.5 million people watched and nearly a fifth of the nation's television sets that were in use were tuned to Tiger. The ratings for the telecast were far better than for the NBA Finals, which concluded the following night, also on NBC.

The PGA Tour has reaped the benefits of Woods' popularity; its purses more than doubled to just over $157 million as a result of a new television contract. Crowds at PGA events are larger and more ethnically diverse than in the past.

The year before Woods turned pro, the Western Open drew 150,000 fans; when he won there in 1997, there were close to 200,000. Woods has come back every year and so have the fans.

"I think we saw Michael Jordan do it. He brought a lot of fans in from the outside who weren't interested in the NBA or even in basketball and really energized the sport," said PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. "We have a lot of [nongolf] fans coming in who have heard about Tiger Woods and want to watch him play."

Nike, which rode Jordan's success to unimagined heights, has created its own golf division because of Woods that generated nearly $300 million in sales last year. That figure could increase given the introduction of the company's new golf ball two months ago and the immediate success Woods has had playing with it.

After switching from Titleist, the ball he used since his amateur days in Southern California, to the new Nike ball in late May, Woods has won two of four events in which he has played.

"Hal Sutton said it would take Tiger a year to get used to the new ball," Nike Chairman Phil Knight said while following Woods around Pebble Beach during the final round of the Open. "I'd hate to see how he's playing in 49 weeks. What he's done here is comparable to anything Michael Jordan did."

Afterward, Knight told several reporters: "Everyone was waiting for the next Michael and they were always looking on the basketball court. He was walking down the fairway."

Woods' impact shouldn't be measured solely in shipments of golf gear or by how many Buicks have been sold since Woods, who owns one but doesn't drive it much, began hawking them on television. It can be felt right down to the game's roots.

Since the April afternoon in 1997 when Woods won the Masters, a tournament that had no African-American player in its field before Lee Elder played at Augusta National in 1975, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of youngsters who generally would have played other sports.

Tim Sanders saw it at Forest Park, a public course in West Baltimore, in the days following Woods' groundbreaking, widely publicized victory.

Woods had shocked the golf establishment in winning the Masters by 12 shots (a modern-day record until last month's Open) with a score of 18 under par (also a record, held jointly by Nicklaus and Ray Floyd). At that point, about 75 minority youths were playing in that junior program.

"Right after he won," Sanders, the head pro, said recently, "we had more than 200."

According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of African-Americans playing the sport has increased by 30 percent since Woods turned pro in August 1996, from 676,000 to 882,000. During the same stretch, there has been only a 6 percent increase overall in the number of people playing golf.

Another wave expected

Locally, participation has reached a plateau the past three years, Sanders said, in part because the children who were coming out to places such as Forest Park had done so mostly at the urging of their parents.'There's a lot of parents pushing their kids to be the next Tiger Woods," said Sanders.

But Sanders believes that Woods' victory at the Open, which came on the heels of his victory in last year's PGA Championship, will have a similar effect. He can see it whenever Woods appears on television.

"Even the old ladies who don't play stop to watch Tiger," said Sanders.

Richard Lapchick could see this coming. As the keynote speaker at a symposium on racism in sports six years ago at Stanford University, Lapchick remembers how Woods, then a freshman at the school, shared some of his experiences growing up.

"He talked about how he could get into play some of the places he did because he was a promising golfer," Lapchick recalled recently. "He said he had black friends who couldn't get into the same clubs."

It wasn't so much what Woods said - some of the things he repeated in the controversial "Welcome to my world" Nike ads that appeared when he turned pro - but the passion with which he said them.

Lapchick, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Sports in Society at Northeastern University in Boston, has followed Woods' career since and hopes Woods could make an impact on how society deals with racism.

He believes that Woods would be a perfect spokesman on this hot-button issue as he would be for any future endorsement deal he signs.'Tiger has become so dominant that he's almost unassailable," said Lapchick. "He has the opportunity that other athletes don't have. I hoped at one point Michael Jordan would speak out on gun control after his father was murdered. Tiger being multiracial can talk about the irrelevance of race."

The issue of race becomes less important the longer Woods plays. Even when he was referred to as the first black player to win the Masters, Woods preferred to call himself "Cablinasian." His father, Earl, is African American with Caucasian and Cherokee Indian ancestors. His mother, Kultida, is Thai with some Chinese heritage.

These days, Woods doesn't talk much about anything other than golf, except maybe a side conversation about his beloved Los Angeles Lakers. Ever since he was caught telling a raunchy joke for a feature story in Gentleman's Quarterly three years ago, access to Woods has been limited.

Mark Steinberg, who has helped represent Woods for Cleveland-based International Management Group for the past two years, doesn't know when or if his high-profile client would take a stand publicly on a political or social issue.

Has own mind on issues

Woods neatly sidestepped the Confederate flag controversy in South Carolina that swirled earlier this year. Unlike tennis player Serena Williams, who pulled out of a tournament at Hilton Head Island, Woods simply never entered the MCI Classic there a week after the Masters.

"If he ever makes a [political] statement, it won't be because it's something he should do," said Steinberg. "I can't tell you if that's going to happen five years or 10 years or 50 years from now. If it does, it will be because he feels strongly about it."

The television ads Woods does these days don't have the same edge, highlighting more his awesome talents than his role as a golf pioneer.

Burton is quick to point out that Woods doesn't say much, if anything, in many of them, either, instead demonstrating those abililties such as being able to juggle a ball on his club and usually flashing his trademark smile.

Meanwhile, Woods has focused on his game, managing to win 12 of the last 22 events in which he has played. It is a winning percentage that not even Nicklaus could claim at the height of his career. Only David Duval, who won 11 of 34 tournaments in a stretch that ended last year, has recently come close.

"I never really went out to compare my record to somebody else's," said Nicklaus, who will likely be playing in his last British Open this week.

"I don't think it's fair to compare my record to [Bobby] Jones or [Walter] Hagen or [Sam] Snead or [Ben] Hogan or even Tiger for that matter. We all played at different times. We played against different people. The only comparison you have is majors."

Woods will try to join Nicklaus, Hogan, Gene Sarazen and Gary Player as the only golfers to have completed a career Grand Slam-victories at the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. Since he was a child, when he taped a list of Nicklaus' accomplishments to the wall in his room, Woods has been shooting for this moment.

And ever since he was a 3-year-old prodigy, performing tricks and displaying his picture-perfect swing on national television shows, the world has been watching. More were watching when he made his debut at 16 in a professional tournament. And even more are watching now as Woods heads off to Scotland, with yet another chance to make history.

On the money

Tiger Woods' endorsements have grown with his popularity. Here are the primary companies and products, including values over the term of each contract:

Nike: $40 million over five years. Currently negotiating deal worth estimated $100 million over five years.

Titleist: $10 million over five years. Negotiated down from $20 million over five years after switch to Nike ball.

American Express: $26 million over five years.

General Motors: $30 million over five years.

Rolex: $7 million over five years.

TLC Laser Center: $2 million a year.

Wheaties: Donation to Tiger Woods Foundation. Source: Golf World magazine

Tiger's tour

Tiger Woods ranks in the top 10 in every PGA Tour statistical category except driving accuracy and sand save percentage. A look at where he ranks (stats are through last weekend's tournament): Scoring average

1, Tiger Woods, 67.84. 2, Jesper Parnevik, 69.29. 3, Ernie Els, 69.32. 4, Phil Mickelson, 69.45. 5, Davis Love III, 69.49. 6 (tie), Paul Azinger and Tom Lehman, 69.53. 8, David Duval, 69.57. 9, John Huston, 69.63. 10, 2 tied with 69.66. Driving distance

1, John Daly, 300.8. 2, Tiger Woods, 292.2. 3, Casey Martin, 288.1. 4, Scott McCarron, 286.7. 5, Phil Mickelson, 285.2. 6, Rory Sabbatini, 284.7. 7, Stuart Appleby, 284.5. 8, Robert Allenby, 284.1. 9, Davis Love III, 284.0. 10, Harrison Frazar, 283.8. Greens in regulation

1, Tiger Woods, 74.1%. 2, Tom Lehman, 70.9%. 3, Kenny Perry, 70.8%. 4 (tie), Mark Calcavecchia and David Duval, 70.4%. 6, David Toms, 70.3%. 7 (tie), Fred Couples and Vijay Singh, 69.5%. 9 (tie), Hal Sutton and Kirk Triplett, 69.1%. Total driving

1, David Duval, 42. 2, Tiger Woods, 43. 3, Robert Allenby, 45. 4, Hal Sutton, 67. 5, Harrison Frazar, 71. 6, Ernie Els, 74. 7, Scott Dunlap, 81. 8, Brad Elder, 83. 9, Mark Calcavecchia, 89. 10, Edward Fryatt, 97. Putting average

1 (tie), Russ Cochran and Jesper Parnevik, 1.723. 3, Tommy Tolles, 1.727. 4, Phil Mickelson, 1.728. 5, Franklin Langham, 1.731. 6, Davis Love III, 1.733. 7, Robert Damron, 1.735. 8, Tiger Woods, 1.736. 9, 3 tied with 1.737. Birdie average

1, Tiger Woods, 4.68. 2, Davis Love III, 4.30. 3, Jesper Parnevik, 4.29. 4, Phil Mickelson, 4.11. 5, David Duval, 4.02. 6, Kirk Triplett, 3.98. 7, Fred Couples, 3.94. 8, 4 tied with 3.93. Eagles (holes per)

On the money

1, Tiger Woods, 72.0. 2, Phil Mickelson, 90.0. 3, Rory Sabbatini, 91.6. 4, Gary Nicklaus, 95.4. 5, Craig Stadler, 113.1. 6, Harrison Frazar, 117.0. 7, Chris Perry, 124.0. 8, Chris DiMarco, 127.8. 9, Jason Caron, 129.0. 10, Paul Azinger, 129.6. All-around ranking

1, Tiger Woods, 117. 2, Ernie Els, 204. 3, Phil Mickelson, 206. 4, Steve Flesch, 250. 5, Nick Price, 269. 6, Robert Allenby, 270. 7, Jesper Parnevik, 280. 8 (tie), David Duval and Harrison Frazar, 283. 10, Kirk Triplett, 322.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad