Magazine article Newsweek

Tiger by the Tail

Magazine article Newsweek

Tiger by the Tail

Article excerpt

Why golf is hoping its 20-year-old, $40 million phenom will give the game a whole new gallery

IT'S A SCRIPT THAT SOUNDS TOO GOOD to be true: the new kid on the sports block is not only talented and handsome and charming; he's at his best in the clinch. He comes from way behind to become the first golfer in history to win three straight U.S. Amateur rifles, then announces 48 hours later he has decided to turn pro. Within a nanosecond, he's a multimillionaire with contracts--more than $40 million--from Nike and Titleist in hand and lots more to come.

Meet Eldrick (Tiger) Woods, a legendary figure in golf long before be officially decided to play it for a living. When he teed off in his first round as a professional last Thursday, ESPN announcer Roger Twibell opened the telecast by saying bluntly, "We are here for one reason and one reason only." In other words, the other 155 pros in the Greater Milwaukee Open weren't on the same par.

And by many measures, they aren't. Woods is a 20-year-old star in a sport where most players don't peak until their 30s. If all that isn't enough, he is a black man in a sport that is virtually all white and in desperate need of a star who can help it shed its elitist, racist image. "It is conceivable that in terms of overall impact on the sport--when you figure in media, the dollars on the table for him, his ability to be a role model--that if he succeeds he might be the most important player ever," said PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. (A man not known for going out on a limb--ever.) Woods knows all about the hopes many in the game have for him, and he bridles at the notion of being a role model for minorities. "I don't consider myself a Great Black Hope," he said. "I'm just a golfer who happens to be black and Asian. It doesn't matter whether they're white, black, brown or green. All that matters is I touch kids the way I can through clinics and they benefit from them."

That comment is either naive or disingenuous. All of the attention that Woods has generated has as much to do with the color of his skin as his golf portfolio. Four years ago when Phil Mickelson turned pro, he had already won a PGA Tour event. (Woods hadn't by the time he turned pro.) He received a lot of attention and signed lucrative contracts, but they weren't anywhere close to Tiger's league. The fact that Woods's first Nike commercial, which began airing last week, has him looking into a camera and noting that there are (at least) 23 clubs in the United States that will not allow him to play because of the color ohis skin is a tipoff to the marketing plans ahead for him.

Which makes perfect sense in a sport that was rocked in 1990 when the founder of Shoal Creek Country Club in Birmingham, Aia., told a reporter that there wasn't any way that an African-American would be considered for membership. This was shortly before the PGA Championship was to be held at the all-white club. Although all of golfs governing bodies moved quickly to establish guidelines that said that no club with restrictive membership policies could host their events in the future, that action was more Band-Aid than cure.

Six years after Shoal Creek, Woods's decision to turn pro doubled the number of African-Americans on tour. For the past several years Jim Thorpe has been the only African-American player on the PGA Tour. Thorpe is 47, the last of a generation of excellent black players that included men like Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder, Jim Dent, Calvin Peete and Pete Brown. Most of them learned the game working as caddies, but with caddies being replaced by golf carts in most of the country, the opportunities for youngsters to learn the game that way have dwindled. Thorpe, for example, once tried to give away 100 sets of clubs to inner-city kids, but got only 30 takers. "The kids all want to grow up to be Michael Jordan," he says sadly. Tiger's father and others hope he can change that,

Expectations are nothing new for Woods. …

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