Tiger Woods’ image is shattered. A disgraced athlete. One of the greatest downfalls in modern day sport. This is the view of many sports pundits considering the astonishing story of Woods that has transpired over the past six months. His position has gone from messiah sent to the masses with golf club in hand to the seedy, unfaithful sorry soul who lived a secret life away from the fairways seemingly no one knew about. But why is it that this story has totally captivated not only the golfing community, but the world of sport in general? The similar escapades of other stars such as Ashley Cole and John Terry were equally well documented in terms of media coverage, but seem to have disintegrated into comparative nothingness when measured against the constant bombardment and intense scrutiny Woods has endured.
So what has led Woods’ story to gain worldwide notoriety for what is now six months? It is simple really. Not only is it owing to his position as world’s best golfer, but also his position as the embodiment of golf. An individual arguably more famous, more influential and more important than the sport itself.
The phenomenal achievements of Woods in such a short space of time have propelled him to international stardom. In his quest to eclipse the record of Jack Nicklaus and win over 18 major championships – the level by which success as a golfer is judged – Woods has already amassed fourteen in just over a decade, totally overshadowing his contemporaries, the closest of which has managed a meagre four. And so, in a world where top athletes’ performance alone is not enough, so their activities off the course, pitch, ring or track are measured. In this Woods again excelled. The Tiger Woods Foundation has helped over ten million young people, with a specific aim to help those deemed underprivileged. The annual ‘Tiger Jam’ concerts further raise money for causes; and then there is the ‘Tiger Woods Block Party’ and two golf tournaments held every year, the AT&T National and Chevron World Challenge (where Woods has been known to donate all his winnings to his foundation).
With the faultless image and impeccable manner in which he dealt with the weight of the golfing world resting on him, it seemed impossible to predict that his world would come cascading down around him near the end of November last year. The car crash outside his home in the middle of the night sparked off revelations of a string of extra-marital affairs, as well as accusations of domestic violence. Seemingly overnight his image that had been carefully constructed since his announcement to turn professional in 1996 vanished into a sea of malicious tabloid accusations, tasteless skits on late night television shows and celebrity gossip websites never before concerned with professional golf. This time Woods was in the news for all the wrong reasons.
In a strange twist I believe this exposure has perhaps not only shown the far-reaching impact Woods has, but served to show us how an individual can totally dictate a worldwide sport. It could be claimed with real legitimacy that the Woods saga is bigger than the game of golf itself. Images were shown around the world of his first stage-managed, robotic press conference since news of the scandal broke. But it was not golf that was making the headlines, it was Tiger Woods. In the weeks leading up to the Masters, the first major of the year where Woods was making his sporting comeback, interest was at a peak, prompting CBS News and Sports President Sean MacManus to proclaim that the occasion would be the ‘biggest media event of the last ten or fifteen years other than President Obama’s inauguration’. But again, it was not so much golf that was making the headlines, more Tiger Woods. This evaluation is given authenticity by the decision of the Masters committee to allow the opening tee shot of Woods on the first day of the tournament to be specially aired. By breaking a tradition held since it first appeared on television screens, the Masters was seen as giving Woods special treatment, such was the intense interest in how his life had unfolded over the previous months. Again, golf was the hapless, forgotten-about performer in the Tiger Woods circus.
Although the respective golf tours continued to operate and attract crowds without Woods – who had announced an indefinite hiatus from the game – the shockwaves of his impact were reverberated throughout the press tents of tournaments being held. Some of the world’s leading golfers such as Ernie Els sulked and moaned at yet again being asked questions they were unable to answer about Woods. Interest in the actual golf tournaments was reserved only for die-hard followers, where the casual observer was more likely to read a headline about the latest sighting of Woods than who was in contention in a particular event. The golfer’s decision to hold his public apology just two days before one of the higher ranked competitions of the year drew criticism – from Els in particular – but served to remind us who holds the real power in professional golf as there is no doubt Woods’ appearance overshadowed the first few days of the event.
So, the scandal of Woods has reiterated the subjectivity of the game to this one man. You could almost say it’s totally deserved as he has managed to single-handedly transform the game. Attracting young children and those who previously hadn’t given the game a second thought, people turned on their televisions on a Sunday afternoon specifically to watch Woods in contention. It is no coincidence that tournaments in which he plays garner double the television audience of those from which he is absent. He has also caused revolution in a financial sense. In 2008 he alone acquired £83 million giving him position as the world’s highest earning athlete. In 1995, the year before he turned professional, only nine golfers earned $1 million a year on the PGA Tour in America, last year ninety-one did.
The impact of Woods is clear for all to see, yet still a number remain sceptical and find room to criticise. Some of these grievances are genuine and Woods himself addressed them when signalling his intent to be ‘more respectful’ to the game and to curb his negative, violent outbursts when on the course. But how can you find significant evidence to suggest he has not done his fair share for the game? As mentioned earlier, he has embraced his situation and has a number of events held annually to fund his foundation. And so, just as the rank and file of the golfing world look to emulate the game of Woods, so they copy (a few) of his off-course activities. For example, number fifteen in the world rankings and fellow major winner Retief Goosen has his own ‘Goose Academy’ to identify and nurture prospective talents. Heck, even lesser known players such as world ranked 135 Darren Clarke have their own academies and prove that the charitable deeds of Woods are manifesting themselves lower down the golfing ladder. This is not to say that such acts were not present before Woods, as they occurred through the game’s governing bodies, but the individual efforts of Woods have acted as a catalyst for the rest of the players out on tour.
Tiger Woods has emerged as a brand as much as a golfer and is unquestionably invaluable to the sport. The media explosion generated by his scandal serves to remind us of his hold over the vast majority of the golfing world. While for now golf holds the upper hand, it is evidently clear that Woods is verging on being bigger than the game itself. Never before has an athlete totally revolutionised the way a sport is played, marketed and followed. So for all his downfalls, let us remind ourselves of the way he has opened up golf to the masses, almost totally transforming it from a ‘snobby’, middle-class game to one accessible even to underprivileged, inner-city children. Without him I fear none of this would have been so successful and so readily implemented.