How Tiger Woods, in his heyday, made golf cool by transcending it
Maybe it was those 350-yard drives and spontaneous, exuberant fist pumps.
Perhaps it was the big smile, athletic build and the brilliant marketing campaign that showed him doing everything from juggling golf balls with his club to walking on water. Then, too, there was that name — Tiger — and the fact he looked different than all the other golfers he was beating so regularly.
Whatever it was, Tiger Woods has been as much a cultural comet in professional golf as a victorious one. From the time he turned pro in 1996, and even past his last major victory at the U.S. Open in 2008, Woods drew mores eyes to him and his sport than any other golfer ever. In his prime, Woods turned tournaments into must-watch events, even for those who’d never teed up a golf ball.
He was compelling, a perfect blend of talent and charisma suited for a growing American diversity and the digital age. TV ratings, galleries and prize money all increased significantly. People had to watch. Woods dragged golf — a sport most Americans have never played — into the Land of Cool.
Among professional athletes for most of the early 2000s, Woods ranked with basketball icon Michael Jordan at the top of the Q Score, which rates popularity and marketing appeal. In 2008, Forbes ranked Woods No. 2 on its annual Celebrity 100 list, based on fame and money. Only Oprah Winfrey was higher.
Plus, he was making cultural as well as sports history. In 1997 at just 21, he stormed to a win at the Masters, shooting a record score and living up to years of hype. That it came at Augusta National, where African-Americans hadn’t been allowed to play until 1975, put him in a special place. The attention just kept coming, with 13 other major victories — including four straight — and 79 total wins on tour.
“Tiger embodied a kind of modern cool that golf hadn’t seen before,” said Orin Starn, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University and author of the book “The Passion of Tiger Woods.” “This was to a certain degree, and still is, a bland, vanilla sport played by anonymous white guys who all dress the same and look the same. So to have this charismatic, young African-American-Asian-American hybrid figure bursting onto the scene made huge news.”
Rick Schloss, the former longtime media director of the annual PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines in San Diego, recalled how the galleries swelled when Woods came to the tour, attracting a younger element interested in one thing: Tiger.
“They’d go there to watch him,” Schloss said. “They don’t know what else is going on. They’ve got their Ugg boots on, the hats on backwards, they’ve got a craft beer, and they know he’s cool.”
In 2001, after he won four straight majors, Americans polled by Gallup named him as the nation’s No. 1 athlete. His favorability rating was on a par with the likes of Jordan, John Glenn, Colin Powell and Pope John Paul II.
Yet Woods slipped from that perch in 2009, when his off-the-course life turned upside down with a personal scandal that led to divorce. He took a leave from golf for several months. He lost sponsorships. When he returned, he wasn’t the same. His smile, swing and putting stroke were diminished.
His last tour win came in 2013, and he failed to reach the weekend at his only two starts in 2017, missing the cut at the Farmers Insurance Open in late January and withdrawing due to injury from a European Tour event after one round in Dubai a week later. He hasn’t played since.
Prior to that, Woods missed nearly a year and a half because of a back injury, although he did play the Hero World Challenge, an unofficial PGA Tour event that he hosts, in December.
In his absence, golf’s attendance and TV ratings suffered.
Now 41, Woods has skipped three 2017 tournaments (the Genesis Open, Honda Classic and Arnold Palmer Invitational) that he typically plays each year, and his next move remains unknown. He even WD’d from a news conference prior to the Genesis Open, which is run by the Tiger Woods Foundation.
Woods hasn’t given up hope of making what would surely be a dramatic return at next week’s Masters. Starn, for one, is looking forward to seeing Woods back inside the ropes.
Said Starn: “There’s always interest in a comeback story in America.”
TIGER’S CELEBRITY PRECEDED HIM to the PGA Tour. He was a child prodigy, a standout at Stanford and a six-time USGA national champion (three U.S. Junior Amateurs and three U.S. Amateurs). He and other celebrities from the sports and entertainment world were like magnets, attracting one another. He lived in a different, more star-studded world than golf’s other top players.
Woods appeared on the sidelines at NFL and basketball games. He played golf with Jordan, Charles Barkley and Tony Romo. He hung with Mark Cuban, Michael Phelps, Jon Bon Jovi, Sting and Will Ferrell. Each year, the Tiger Jam fundraiser for his Tiger Woods Foundation in Las Vegas delivered the celebs. It all brought more attention to golf and the tournaments he played.
Chris Zimmerman, the former director of advertising for Nike and then the company’s general manager for golf, was there when Woods turned pro and signed a $40 million sponsorship deal with the company. From the outset, he said, those around Woods were intent on making him more than just the best golfer of his generation.
“From day one, they had interest in what Tiger could be as an athlete, but also as a brand,” said Zimmerman, now the president and CEO of business operations for the St. Louis Blues. “That’s a tall order for a 21-year-old coming out of a few years at Stanford. But he had been on a path toward greatness from an early age, and certainly both his dad and the people around him, they were very clear that they believed Tiger Woods could be a great brand, much in the same way that Michael Jordan had been.”
The first Nike TV commercials in 1996 to introduce Woods to viewers were “Hello, World” and “I am Tiger Woods.” Each told stories. The first was about his commitment to golf and his road to the tour. The second, his roots and connection to a new, diverse generation. Zimmerman says the intent was never to make Tiger cool — above the rest — but to show his respect for the game and help Nike launch its golf equipment business.
When Woods’ style and personality meshed with his wins and the acceptance of Nike’s products, the ad campaign helped catapult him into the Jordan realm.
“That’s where the magic is,” Zimmerman said.
The most memorable commercial was itself enchanting, a 1999 spot in which Woods juggled a ball on a clubface for nearly 30 seconds while switching hands, going between his legs and behind his back before popping the ball into the air and knocking it down the driving range with a baseball swing.
While many top golfers can do the same thing, Average Joe and Jane watching at home didn’t know that. Tiger, it seemed, could do anything.
“It was an exceptionally successful commercial,” Zimmerman said. “It just fascinated people. They wanted to know if it was real, had he really done that.”
Those commercials helped him vault from athlete to cultural icon, according to Donna Barbie, professor of humanities and communication at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida and editor of the book “The Tiger Woods Phenomenon,” a collection of essays.
“His dad and his companies were marketing geniuses,” Barbie said. “Has there ever been a golfer who was so marketed as Tiger Woods?”
Barbie, who studies cultural phenomena, said Woods was a “change agent” for golf, bringing it further into the mainstream and boosting TV ratings, attendance and earnings. Even the golf video game that bore his name was popular with young gamers.
“They would never have dreamed of playing golf, of all things, in some software, electronic format if it hadn’t been for Tiger Woods,” she said. “I can guarantee that.”
His presence on tour was a signal that golf had changed and that younger players would have to change, too, to compete.
“It’s not old men in weird plaid pants anymore,” Barbie said, laughing. “It’s young, vibrant athletes who can show their athleticism.”
The fact Woods was built like an athlete — and trained like one — made him stand out among fellow golfers, Barbie contended. So did his heritage, his talent and his bearing. He wasn’t the everyman, eye-contact, hand-shaking Arnold Palmer who brought fans to the game in the 1950s and ’60s. Woods was more focused and aloof on course, making him both “cool and compelling.”
“He was not one of the people,” Barbie said. “But he caused people to want to participate and witness greatness. … They love Tiger Woods because he was above it, because he was on the pedestal. We really love to look up to people who are larger than life.”
Barbie, a lifelong golfer, often followed Woods on the PGA Tour, watching his fans as much as she watched him. They always expected to see him to do the unexpected. Usually, he did.
She recalled Woods one year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill contemplating whether to go for a green over water or lay up.
“He’s holding a wood and everyone’s going, ‘Yeah, he’s going to go for it,'” she said. “And then he puts the wood away and brings out the iron, and there was a groan by the gallery, just a groan, like, ‘Really? You’re going to disappoint us?’ And then he takes out the wood and goes for it and gets it, and everybody is ecstatic.
“That’s what cool is.”
CHRIS RILEY PLAYED AGAINST Woods as a junior and in college before both turned pro in 1996. While Woods went straight to the PGA Tour, Riley got there in 1999, eventually advancing to No. 22 in the Official World Golf Ranking and playing with Woods and Team USA in the 2004 Ryder Cup.
Riley said Woods “transcended the game” and helped lift the image of golf, which was “nerdy” when he played as a boy but now is considered a “cooler game.”
“No doubt,” Riley said. “At sports bars now, people will watch golf, especially if Tiger is playing. Even if he’s not playing. But pre-1996, nobody watched golf unless you were a golfer.”
Plus, Riley said, Woods impacted the sport with his dedication to fitness, prompting other golfers change their training habits to keep up.
“You don’t see the guys anymore, the Tim Herrons, going to have a beer or a cocktail after the round,” he said, referring to the tour veteran nicknamed “Lumpy.” “They go to the gym to get a massage, work with their trainer.”
It’s not hard to see how Woods’ influence on the game has rubbed off on the current wave of top talent led by Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. However, Tiger’s impact off the course might be only as effective as his game. As his play has gone downhill, so has the sport’s popularity as recreational activity.
The equipment business Nike had built around Woods suffered, too, and last year the company announced it would no longer sell golf clubs, balls and bags.
“Tell me if I’m wrong, but I think he made it cool to watch and not really to play,” Riley said.
Starn sees the same thing. Tiger’s magnetism was a boon to the tour, but it might not have the lasting effect the sport had anticipated. Without Woods in recent years, Starn said the tour lacks a dynamic sense of excitement.
“But I do think Tiger generated a kind of excitement around golf that was unprecedented,” Starn said.