Joe Steranka, the former chief executive officer of the century-old PGA of America, says that in early 1997, the organization worried about what the next generation of golfers would bring since the Baby Boomer class of Nicklaus, Watson et al was on the cusp of retirement.
“There was a lot of discussion about how we could make golf cool,” says Steranka, who was then a broadcast executive for PGA of America. “And then along comes this great phenom from Stanford. He became one of those few, one-name iconic figures in entertainment, like Madonna or Sting.”
Yes, if you dropped just the name “Tiger” anywhere around the globe the last 20 years, chances are people would know who you were talking about, the golfer who currently has 14 major titles, and who was the 21-year-old wunderkind making history in April 1997 at the Masters in Augusta, Ga. Woods took the equivalent of a sledgehammer to the rest of the field and won his first major with an 18-under par final score. After that ’97 win, Tiger Woods inspired millions of young men and women, particularly African-Americans, to pick up a golf club; TV ratings and tournament purses soar; Woods sparked a major spike in the development of golf courses; and, in Steranka’s words, Woods made golf cool.
But the name Tiger also invokes memories of headlines and images from a spectacular fall in 2009 due to his infidelity scandal. Woods’ 2009 Thanksgiving Day car crash laid bare a sordid underbelly of the golfer’s personal life and the fallout was severe across his global brand. More recently, Tiger has come to symbolize an aging, injury-riddled athlete. He announced last week that he would not play in this week’s Masters, and the mere mention of his name in golf circles now elicits debate about whether or not he will ever compete at an elite level again, much less chase and pass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors.
Twenty years after that Masters jaunt, experts say that there is no question that the 41-year-old Woods is still a sizeable figure in the sport. Woods’ Midas touch has definitely dimmed in some corners, and if he continues to drop out of professional tournaments, maybe fans will embrace the younger stars like Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth even more fervently. Will the name Tiger ever become an afterthought? Not likely. But gone are the days when the one-name destroyer owned the links, the ratings, and the golf world.
“He’s morphed into a legendary role a few decades earlier than he hoped,” says Marc Ganis, the president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports marketing firm. “His name still carries a tremendous amount of cache. But his visibility now is to a narrower field. When he was at his best, he was a cross-over personality − in golf, politics, and entertainment. If Tiger ever got his game back, it would be lightning in a bottle.”
* * *
In a 2013 red carpet interview at the annual Buoniconti “Great Sports Legends” gala at the Waldorf-Astoria, three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo predicted that it would be a difficult climb back to the top for Woods. “We’ve gone four years since the change of direction in his life,” Faldo said then, referring to Woods’ ‘09 scandal. “I said (in 2009) that this would be mentally hard. It’s not so easy. We’ve seen a change in his confidence. For him, winning was a patent.”
Woods hasn’t won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open, and since 2014, he’s had three back surgeries, compounding any mental hurdles he faces with daunting physical challenges.
Yet, to measure Woods’ influence on any one tentacle of the golf world, look no further than The First Tee organization, which was founded in 1997, and which helps young people learn the game of golf, along with life skills and core values that they can use on and off the course.
Joe Louis Barrow Jr., The First Tee’s current CEO and the son of boxing great Joe Louis, says that when the organization’s opening ceremonies were held in Central Park in 1997, Woods’ late father Earl attended and was a valuable mentor to Barrow. And Tiger, says Barrow, immediately gave The First Tee “credibility” with his early involvement.
“Tiger did a bunch of clinics all around the country,” says Barrow. “Some of those clinics were done at First Tee sites. He shared with the community what First Tee was. Another way he impacted, a lot of African-American youth took up the game because of Tiger. And then there is this little-known fact: a lot of our chapters got ground given to them on city courses. We have 155 chapters around the country, and many city council people gave ground to our chapters because an African-American, specifically Tiger, had achieved the level of succss on the PGA Tour and in golf.”
While Barrow says that Woods’ impact has waned (after all there is just one African-American on the PGA Tour, Harold Varner III), “I don’t think any athlete has the impact that they had when they were at their peak. It’s not just Tiger. Any athlete has that ebb and flow.”
Conrad Ray, the current head golf coach at Stanford University, Woods’ alma mater, was a teammate of Woods during their Cardinals’ playing days − “I carried a lot of luggage back then,” Ray jokes. Having just finished his 12th season at Stanford, Ray says Woods’ impact on the collegiate golf scene was gigantic when Ray first started coaching, and that Woods’ shadow still looms large.
“A lot of kids that I was directly recruiting were brought to the game because they grew up watching Tiger on the weekends,” says Ray. “He had a massive influence on the college game and junior golf, and it has continued. He’s still at the top of the totem pole in the golf world, for sure. Any collegiate player or coach or parent around the college game, you have to be into the craft. I think if you’re into the craft, you’re a fan and you appreciate how intriguing Tiger’s story has been and the impact he’s had.”
Steranka says that Tiger’s reach stretched to all corners of the sport when he was at his peak.
“No golfer in the modern era quite crossed over the generational, gender, racial lines the way Tiger did,” says Steranka. “As a result, column inches grew, television ratings doubled, the Internet, which came along later in his career, became fascinated with him. Doubling television ratings led to a doubling of rights fees, a doubling of purses, so the PGA Tour players enjoyed those riches but so did every golf business at that time.”
* * *
Rocco Mediate, who dueled with Woods in that ’08 U.S. Open before Tiger emerged victorious in a playoff, says that Woods’ biggest problem now is fixing his swing.
“I don’t think he’s finished. I may not know everything that’s going on. But he can’t possibly be done. As of now, he’s just not ready yet. If he figures out what’s causing the problem and he fixes it, his body will respond better,” says Mediate. “It’s a 100% the golf swing. His golf swing − it’s not horrid − it’s just putting stress on certain places that he can’t have stress on. It’ll keep breaking.”
Mediate, who has battled back woes over the years, now endorses Osteo Bi-Flex medication for joint pain, and Mediate says that he would recommend Woods use it too. At this point, how could it get any worse for Woods’ physical ailments? “It makes it easier to do everyday life and the life that I lead,” says Mediate.
Bill Harmon, a golf pro and the younger brother of Woods’ first swing coach, Butch Harmon, says that even if Woods does get healthy, “his best years are behind him.”
“How long can he accept playing poorly?” asks Harmon.
But even if Woods is never able to flip the switch back on, and the TV ratings or frenzy around golf majors never reaches the levels from the ’90s and early 2000s, Tiger will always be Tiger. The name will stand the test of time.
“For a period, he was bigger than his sport,” says Faldo. “There is no comparison. Tom Brady is not bigger than the NFL, (David) Beckham is not bigger than soccer and (Roger) Federer is not bigger than tennis.”