In the 20 years since he won his first US Amateur Championship, Tiger Woods has dominated the game like no other player in history.
With the exception of Nick Faldo’s dismantling of Greg Norman at the Masters, 1996 will not be remembered as a particularly vintage year for the major championships. If ever a sport could be accused of living up to its staid image of a game for middle-aged white men, then this was the time. The game was crying out for something or, more pertinently, someone new. Faldo’s crushing of Norman is the stuff of legend. In almost every sense, it was glory’s last shot. Faldo grabbed his chance, landing his sixth and final major. Norman, with two Opens to his name and more than five years in total at the top of the world rankings, crumbled. Neither player was to reach such heights again. It was a watershed moment. But what of the other majors that year?
Were the golfing gods so preoccupied with the project that was Tiger Woods that they handed them out almost at random? The US Open went to Steve Jones, 38; the Open Championship to Tom Lehman, 37; and the US PGA Championship to Mark Brooks, 35. The Great Triumvirate? Hardly.It had been a full decade since Jack Nicklaus landed the last of his 18 majors, the 1986 Masters at Augusta National. He was 46 at the time and had not been a serious contender for a number of years. What the Golden Bear had, though, was star quality.
As had Arnold Palmer, all film star looks and John Wayne swagger, before him.Into the void left by Nicklaus came a sparkling European contingent, led by Severiano Ballesteros. Cavalier and charismatic, Ballesteros single-handedly revived the fortunes of golf in Europe. Where the Spaniard led, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer and Faldo followed. All five invaded the citadel that is Augusta National and all five came away as Masters champions.
There was no welcome with open arms for the Europeans in the United States, however. Ken Schofield, the former chief executive of the European Tour, had to fight long and hard just to get Europe’s finest players into the three majors played on that side of the Pond. There were to be no mega TV deals signed on the back of a European invasion. Or for that matter, no multi-million dollar endorsements either.So while the decade of Norman and Europe’s Big Five was drawing to a close, professional golf, in terms of its worldwide appeal and prize funds, was treading water.
The PGA Tour was made up of identikit players, many of them well into their 30s. South Africa’s Ernie Els, winner of the 1994 US Open at just 24, bucked the trend as did José Maria Olazabal, who won the Masters the same year, at 27. Much was also expected of another brilliant youngster by the name of Phil Mickelson. If ever a player illustrated the public’s hunger for something out of the ordinary, however, it was John Daly, the shock winner of the US PGA Championship in 1991 and, only a tad less surprisingly, the Open Championship at St Andrews four years later.
Golf’s anti-hero, Daly was anything but American country club material. He smoke and drank to excess, looked like he had never set foot inside a gym and yet, with his unique overswing, drove the ball colossal distances. His own brand of car-crash golf – sublime one minute, calamitous the next – drew the TV cameras and the galleries in their thousands. What Daly was not, however, was the perfect vehicle for Corporate America.
What the game needed most as the curtains came down on another season of majors in 1996 was one of two things: an intense rivalry (think Palmer versus Nicklaus; Norman versus Faldo) or a superstar. It was about to get the latter.
Tiger Woods, as we were about to find out, did not ‘do’ rivalry. Domination was the name of his game.
He may have won his third US Amateur title on the bounce, signed a huge endorsement deal with Nike and captured the attention of broadcasters and writers the world over. But at just 20 and about to play his first event as a professional, Tiger Woods’ neck was on the line.
Woods announced himself at the pre-tournament press conference at the Greater Milwaukee Open in the last week of August with the words: “Hello World”. Carefully choreographed rather than off- the-cuff, it echoed a line he had already been fed for a TV ad that would air later that week, which featured footage of fist-pumping victories and a recap of his rising résumé. Brand Tiger was up and running.
Like a tidal wave hitting land, Woods had arrived at the event with an 11-man entourage of managers and sponsors. In an interview, Woods told Curtis Strange, the former US Open champion, that he was there to win. Anything else “sucks”, he said. “You’ll learn,” Strange replied.
Asked by Larry Dorman of the New York Times if there was resentment among the rank-and-file players, Steve Stricker said, “No doubt about it, especially with the money he’s getting. The number one player in the world (Greg Norman) isn’t getting that kind of money. Here’s a guy who hasn’t got his tour card yet and he’s making $43 million.”
For his part, Dorman was not at all surprised. “There are many reasons for it,” he wrote. “Three straight United States Amateur titles. Major league game. A ‘Q’ rating – a measure of recognition and popularity – that stems partly from his heritage (part black, part Thai) and partly from his demeanour. And timing. Timing is everything, and Woods’ (timing) is impeccable here.”
Nike, who had yet to cast or forge a club in the company’s name, knew exactly what they were buying into. “Tiger Woods will have a tremendous impact on the world of sports and will change the way people view the game of golf,” said Phillip Knight, chairman and CEO of Nike. “He is one of a handful of special athletes who transcend their sports, the way (Michael) Jordan has done in basketball and (John) McEnroe did in tennis.”
Woods finished T60 that week and earned $2,544. But he opened his account as a professional with a drive of 336 yards and, for good measure, threw in a hole-in-one in the final round. They were simply the signs of things to come. That week, the TV ratings were up, the size of the crowds were up, and the on-site sales were up as well. It was estimated that Woods’ appearance contributed $2.2 million to the local economy.
Incredibly, it took Woods just five events to register his first win on Tour. At the Las Vegas Invitational, he made up four strokes on the leader with a final round of 64 and went on to beat Davis Love III in a play-off. Then, in his seventh and final event of the season, he racked up win number two at the Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic. He had silenced the naysayers for good.
Those wins were as nothing, however, compared to his performance at the Masters six months later, when he reached the turn in 40 in his first round, came home in 30, and went on to win by a staggering 12 strokes. At 21, he was the youngest winner of the tournament.
And when Faldo placed the Green Jacket around his slender young shoulders it was truly a rite of passage, the ending of one era and the beginning of another.
On Saturday, 24th January, 1998 at the Johnnie Walker Classic in Phuket, Thailand, Ernie Els picked his ball out the hole, shook hands with his playing partners, acknowledged the applause of the crowd and walked off the 18th green at the end of the third round with a one-stroke lead. Several hours earlier, Tiger Woods sat in the press centre facing the routine barrage of questions from the media. When asked if he thought there was anybody in the field who could catch Els on the final day, a deadpan Woods said, “I can.”
The response was delivered without a hint of arrogance or any sign of the humour you might have expected to find among the words of a man who was eight shots off the lead and with a string of top-class players, including Nick Faldo and Retief Goosen, blocking his route to the top of the leaderboard. But as every golf journalist knows, Tiger doesn’t do humour when he talks about winning tournaments. Later that evening when Els got to hear what Woods had said, he raised a quizzical eyebrow. “What is he on?” said the Big Easy.
The following day, Woods overhauled Els’ lead with a scintillating 65 that left Ernie needing to birdie the final hole to force a play-off. On the second extra hole, Woods drained a 15-foot birdie putt that not only gave him the title but, more importantly as it would transpire, a psychological edge over his fierce rival. The term Tigeritis was born.
But Els wasn’t the only player to suffer at Woods’ hands. Phil Mickelson had to wait until 2004 to claim his first major at Augusta, Colin Montgomerie buckled several times when in contention, Sergio Garcia would push self-destruct any time Tiger was in close proximity, while Lee Westwood found himself finishing narrowly behind Woods on many occasions, including the 2008 US Open.
“The expectation when Tiger came on Tour was immense,” says Paul McGinley. “He’s one of the few guys who have gone from strength to strength from the day he turned pro. He delivered straight away and continued to deliver.”
As a child, Woods committed to memory Jack Nicklaus’ record haul of 18 majors and vowed to chase him down, to become indisputably the greatest player in the history of the game. In 1999, he won his second major, the US PGA Championship, and then, in 2000, followed up with his year of years.
In succession, Woods won the US Open at Pebble Beach by 15 strokes, the Open at St Andrews by eight, and the US PGA Championship at Valhalla. He completed the ‘Tiger Slam’, with victory at the 2001 Masters. In 20 starts on the PGA Tour in 2000, he won nine times, had 17 top-10s and earned $9,188,321. Such dominance was unprecedented.
There was the odd blip. David Duval briefly took over as world No.1 in 1999 and Vijay Singh, while Woods was remodelling his swing, enjoyed 32 weeks at the top between 2004 and 2005.
In his time in the game, though, Woods has transcended the sport and delivered it to a whole new audience. Until May this year, he had spent an accumulated 683 weeks (the equivalent of 13 years) as World No.1 and garnered 106 pro victories worldwide. Stunning.
At 32, time seemed to be on Woods’ side when he won the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines, but he has since stalled, brought up short in the aftermath of scandal and a series of dreadful injuries. Now, following microsurgery, it is a bad back that hangs over him like a malign shadow. The world waits to see if he can come back fitter and stronger next year.
In his time in the game, Tiger Woods has taken golf to new levels. Yet suppose Tiger walks away from the game tomorrow, the injuries having finally taken too great a toll on his ageing body; what would he leave behind? What would be his legacy?
Financially, professional golf is still in rude health in the US. Tim Finchem, commissioner of the PGA Tour, has worked wonders to keep the money flowing into the game and is already preparing for life after Tiger. In 2011, Finchem negotiated a nine-year contract extension with broadcasters CBS and NBC said to be worth more than $500 million a year, an increase of 27 per cent. He also convinced FedEx, sponsors of the lucrative end-of-season play-offs, to extend its deal for another five years, and has more than 100 corporate sponsors on board. What the European Tour would give for such backing.
What we will not be seeing, then, is an exodus of top players back to the European Tour as a result of reduced prize funds in the US. In fact, Finchem has promised the TV companies and sponsors that he will now fully promote the next batch of stars, the likes of Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth. He is also helping to drive the game forward under the PGA Tour banner in Asia, Latin America and Canada.
On the eve of The Players Championship this year, Finchem played down Woods’ absence following back surgery. “It’s not the first time we haven’t had Tiger, with injuries and whatever,” he said. “We’re kind of used to it. When Tiger plays, he dominates the media focus. That’s fine, but the negative to that is that the young players coming up don’t get the kind of attention they need to develop and become athletes that the fans really recognise. So it holds back the development of our stars.”
What would not have been lost on Finchem or the broadcasters, however, were the viewing figures in the absence of Woods at The Masters, the Players’ Championship, and the US Open. All of them were down. Considerably so.
It might not be so surprising that Martin Kaymer’s runaway victory at Pinehurst drew the lowest US Open TV audience in the US since 1996, fully 46 per cent lower than the final round of 2013, in which Phil Mickelson was pipped at the post by Justin Rose. But the Masters, down as much as 25 per cent?
Lest we forget, the fourth round at Augusta National came down to a head-to-head between Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth – a former winner blessed with the most flamboyant of games against a 20-year-old rising star, both of them American.
“Sport needs a dominant figure and golf definitely needs Tiger Woods,” says leading coach Pete Cowen. “We need somebody to take his place, but there’s nobody with his presence. You have to ask, ‘Who’s worth the entrance fee?’”
Robert Karlsson, for one, fears for the game in Woods’ absence. “Is the game ready to be without Tiger? Probably not,” said the Swede. “He was right in every sense. He was brought up to be this wonder kid. He was like Michael Jordan, one of the top three most famous athletes ever. And this is golf we’re talking about, not football.
“I don’t think any sport is ever ready to lose that. It doesn’t matter if someone like Martin (Kaymer) or Rory (McIlroy) or some of the other guys come through, they will still have a hard time reaching the world outside the golf circuit. That’s the way it is.”
Interestingly, Giles Morgan, global head of sponsorship at HSBC, who was responsible for getting Woods to play in Shanghai in 2005, holds no such fears.
“What Tiger brought to the game was a whole new audience,” Morgan said. “He was imperious and broadened the appeal to all sectors of society around the world. When we were looking to open up the game in a country (China) that had very little history or heritage in golf, Tiger was a magnificent catalyst for creating the impetus of what has become a huge event.
“However, I don’t think the game will suffer for his absence. In any sport there have been players who have taken it to another level, but other generations come along to pick up the mantle. Tiger is a giant of the game, but he isn’t bigger than the game.”
So, what’s next? An intense rivalry or a superstar? In truth there are no Tigers on the horizon. Step forward, then, Rory and Jordan. Your time has come.