From the archive: Tiger Woods on par with Pele and Ali

Mike Aitken reports from Pebble Beach on impact of Woods’ US Open win

Tiger Woods, winner of the 100th US Open, has brought about a massive cultural change in the game of golf. Picture: Getty

WHEN Tiger Woods vaporised the finest golfers in the world at Pebble Beach on Sunday, he sent a message from the US Open which will have ramifications far beyond the narrow confines of the professional game.

Woods’ extraordinary 15-stroke margin of success – he finished on the 12-under-par total of 272, a couple of light years in front of runners-up Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez – confirmed the suspicion that the young man from Cypress in Southern California may turn out to be the most talented player who ever lived. Already certain of a prominent mention in golf’s record books, his place in American folklore was also secured at the 100th US Open with a performance which made front page news on this side of the Atlantic.

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Many commentators were moved by the scale of Woods’ victory – the most emphatic in the history of major championship golf – to compare him with the men who pulled off the greatest achievements in American sport. Tiger now finds himself rubbing shoulders with Babe Ruth, the baseball player who hit more home runs than any other team in 1927, Mark Spitz, the swimmer who won seven Olympic gold medals at the one Games, and Bob Beamon, the long jumper who broke the world record by two feet at the 1968 Olympics.

My own feeling is that Woods may have more in common with Pele, the Brazilian footballer, and Muhammad Ali, the world heavyweight boxer, simply because his impact is cultural as much as sporting.

Charting Woods’ influence over the past four years makes for startling reading. Since he arrived on the scene, teenage golfers represent the fastest growing segment of the sport in the United States. Given that golf’s biggest problem prior to Woods’ emergence was that the sport at club level was dominated by retired senior citizens, the change could hardly have been more significant.

As well as juniors and young people in general, Woods has also drawn more minorities than ever before to play a game which was previously perceived as the favoured sport of the white Anglo-Saxon community.

Hank Aaron, one of America’s greatest baseball players, is in awe of what Woods has done for the black community. Writing in the latest issue of Golf Digest, Aaron says: “Right after he won the 1997 Masters, and I mean right away, I saw more African-American kids on golf courses than I’d ever seen before. It was inspiring in ways that I never would have imagined growing up in Mobile, Alabama.

“Golf has never been a black child’s game, because it’s not a game you can play for $1.50 or $2. And most of the places where you could play were whites only. When Tiger set all those records, it reminded me of the way we used to gather round the radio and listen to Joe Louis’ fights. The only difference with Tiger is people gather round the TV. His winning meant the same thing to us that Jackie Robinson meant in baseball and Joe Louis meant in boxing. He lifted us up and showed us what we could do.”

Already the number of African-Americans playing the game has increased by 30 per cent thanks to Woods. Somewhere in the region of 2.4 million black men and women – around 10 per cent of US golfers – now take to the links each week. When you bear in mind that this year’s Masters was also won by a Fijian, Vijay Singh, it is clear that while most of the faces in golf are still white, the dominant ones are just as likely to be black.

This begs the question about whether or not golf will follow the same evolutionary path as basketball. In the 1960s, most American teams consisted of white players. Today, blacks are in the majority.

Might the US PGA Tour undergo a similar transformation by 2030?

While it remains to be seen if Woods’ influence will cut that deeply, his immediate impact on the economics of golf has been almost as remarkable.

The surge generated by Woods at grassroots level fuelled a further boom in the professional game with prize money and sponsorship deals reaching new heights as TV viewing figures in the States start to rival those for basketball. America’s golfers are competing for more than $150 million in prize money this season.

In the sponsorship stakes, as on the golf course, Woods is at the top of the tree. Last year he earned nearly $7m from playing the game. This season is only halfway through and he has already pocketed a few dollars under $5m.

Off the course, his endorsement deals with Nike, American Express, Rolex, General Motors, EA Sports, Wheaties, Titleist and Golf Digest net him nearly another $50m.

The one certainty about those figures is that they will continue to rise after a display at Pebble Beach which left his peers struggling to take in the enormity of Woods’ achievement.

Els, the two-time US Open champion who played with Tiger in the final group and is regarded by many as the most naturally gifted international golfer, admitted: “When he’s on you don’t have much of a chance. It was just a flawless, dominating performance. Anything I can say would be an understatement. If I’d played out of my mind, I probably still would have lost by five or six or seven.”

If the man who finished second in both this year’s majors thinks his very best is not good enough, what chance do the rest have? Believe it or not, Woods’ score at Pebble Beach was 29 shots better than the average 72-hole total for the event. He is not just defeating the competition, he is beating them to pulp.

If today’s players do not offer sufficient competition, Woods can always look to history for inspiration. When he arrives in St Andrews next month for the Open, Tiger will be striving to become only the fifth player to win all four majors.

Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Gary Player are the members of this elite group. By winning three different titles, Tiger has already joined the club which includes Sam Snead, Lee Trevino, Tommy Armour, Walter Hagen, Jim Barnes, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer, Ray Floyd and Byron Nelson.

Blessed with a keen intelligence as well as a huge desireto win, Woods knows his place in the scheme of things all right.

“That’s something I would love to have happen,” he replied after being asked about the prospect of winning at St Andrews next month. “There’s no better site to have it occur than at the home of golf. If I could somehow be fortunate enough to play well and at the right time and get that Claret Jug, well, it would be quite a feeling.”