Tiger's way

Charismatic Woods transcends world of sports, expanding his sphere of cultural influence


July 16, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

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."

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