In the summer of 1991, a reporter corralled the new 15-year old winner of the Junior World Golf Championship coming off the 18th green at Torrey Pines. “How many tournaments had he won,” asked the uninitiated scribe. “I quit counting after 11-and-under. I had 110 trophies; I threw them all in the garbage,” said Eldrick Woods. If only some lucky refuse collector saved that hardware, there would be a fortune to be had on eBay.
He was still being called Eldrick back then, but the golfing world already knew a little about him. At the age of two, he putted against Bob Hope on The Mike Douglas Show. He broke 50 for nine holes when he was three and by the time he was ready for first grade he had been mentioned in Golf Digest and appeared on That’s Incredible, an ABC reality show for unusual stunts. Little Eldrick broke 80 on a regulation course when he was eight.
He compiled the greatest junior record in the history of golf. There were six Junior World Championships, including four in a row. He was the youngest ever United States Junior Amateur champion at the age of 15. There were three of those in a row. That was followed immediately by three straight U.S. Amateur championships – he was also the youngest to win one of those. He was being called, “Tiger” by the time he teed it up in his first professional tournament, just a few weeks past his 16th birthday in the Los Angeles Open at Riviera. Woods won a NCAA individual golf championship at Stanford and then bid farewell to life as an amateur golfer.
Lofty Expectations, Lived up to
Before he teed it up in his first professional tournament in the Milwaukee Open in August of 1996 Tiger Woods was already one of the richest golfers in history, having signed endorsement contracts reported at $40 million, most well known being his relationship with Nike Golf. If there was any resentment among the established touring pros, it didn’t last long. Woods won his fifth professional tournament, in a playoff with Davis Love. In April of 1997, he became the youngest winner of the Masters and two months later, after less than a year on Tour, Tiger Woods was the Number One ranked player in the world.
Tiger Mania was a national phenomenon and millions of people who had never touched a golf club turned on the television to watch him play. As the TV ratings soared so did purses. Everyone around the PGA Tour was getting rich, none more so than Woods, who is considered the game’s first billion-dollar golfer.
Take your pick of what is the Tiger Woods’ records as to which is the most mind-boggling. He has won 79 PGA tournaments – about one in every four he has played. There were 14 major wins – and they were all collected by the time he was 32 years old. Woods was the Number One ranked player in the world for 281 consecutive weeks – more than five years. He has been Number One 683 weeks in his career. At one point Woods made the cut in 142 consecutive tournaments – the next highest total is 113 and then 105, and quickly it drops below 50. Here’s an accomplishment you don’t hear much about; at the World Golf Championships, which brings together an elite field of only the top-ranked players in the world, Woods won 15 of the first 28 events before hurting his leg in 2008.
His career is 20 years old now, the bulk of it is etched in the record books. If Jack Nicklaus is not the Greatest of All Time, Woods is. Take your pick. Tiger Woods has certainly left an indelible mark on history. But also, what about his impact on the game?
How about those television ratings for golf? It turns out all those new viewers only wanted to watch Tiger Woods. They still do. If he plays, ratings spike. Otherwise, they flatline. Not so many became golf converts.
How about how the game is played? Tiger Woods showed up hitting the ball unreal distances. Club designers went into overdrive to feed that distance for all golfers. Arguably that has led to courses being too long, rounds taking too long to play and golfers quitting the game. Tour players are so long these days that even Woods is worried about being able to keep up as he returns to playing after 18 months on the sidelines.
What about the Woods style? Like no golfer before him, Tiger Woods brought a feral athleticism to the game. With the exception of Gary Player, pro golfers never saw an advantage to being ultra-fit. These days a visit to the fitness trailer is a mandatory part of tournament preparation. Maybe the violent swings Woods made in his prime led to his later-stage injuries or maybe not but there is a whole new breed of pro golfer in his wake.
Did Tiger Woods grow the game of golf? Eldrick was born the son of an African-American father and Thai mother. He was not only a mega-superstar but a minority one. Surely his sheer wattage would lure young minority athletes away from the football field and basketball court onto the golf course. It never happened. Despite urban initiatives to introduce golf, there are fewer African-American golfers on the Tour than there were thirty years ago, with players like Jim Dent, Jim Thorpe, and Calvin Peete. The PGA Tour is almost completely comprised of country club graduates; there are no Lee Trevinos showing up from driving ranges anymore.
It must be concluded that the Tiger Woods phenomenon did not carry the game of golf along with it. Societal forces have conspired to golf contracting through the Tiger Woods era. He may not have been able to single-handedly transform society, but it has been a ride we all should all be thankful to have experienced.