Tiger Woods’ emphatic 12-stroke victory on the occasion of his major championship debut at the 1997 Masters stands as a seminal moment in the history of professional golf.
Not only did the then-21-year-old become the youngest player ever to don the Green Jacket and establish a new record winning margin on one of golf’s oldest and most difficult courses, he simultaneously closed the door on an era dominated by players such as Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, and Seve Ballesteros, and introduced professional golf to the modern era.
The sport had never before seen a figure such as Woods: young, handsome, built like a track athlete and, most remarkably, black. In a sport that is to this day dominated by middle-aged, middle-class white men, Woods’ emergence as the most talented young golfer the PGA Tour had witnessed since Jack Nicklaus proved transformative.
After all, it was only in the year of Woods’ birth (1975) that the Masters organizers began inviting black players to partake in the event, and it is a testament to the historical significance of the Californian’s achievement that Lee Elder, the first African-American golfer ever to play in the Masters, analogized the possible impact of Woods’ 1997 triumph to that of Jackie Robinson in the MLB after World War II.
“No one will turn their head when a black man walks to the first tee after this,” Elder said. “It could have more potential than Jackie Robinson breaking into baseball.”
The fact that the sport’s racial profile remains so heavily skewed in favour of Caucasian players suggests that such predictions were hasty, and Tiger’s reluctance to speak out against elements of institutionalized racism and sexism in golf (instead using his public platform to maximize sponsorship income) is a legitimate criticism of his career.
Nevertheless, Woods’ emergence as the dominant force in professional golf between 1997 and 2008 played a critical role in diversifying the sport’s demographic base and in growing participation numbers across the globe. Indeed, many commentators, such as Webster University Professor of sports economics Pat Rishe, cite Tiger’s decline as a key reason why the international golf market has contracted over the last five years.
“Tiger Woods changed the game and interest in it,” Rishe said. “We got spoiled by all he did when he was winning. He created a spike in golf that we’re unlikely to see again.”
“A Rickie Fowler or a Dustin Johnson could help,” he argued. “But it will take someone with the ‘It’ factor, someone with the style and who’s attractive to the average person [to revive popularity].”
It is difficult to dispute Rishe’s assessment. Tiger’s achievement in winning 13 majors in the decade which followed his breakthrough at Augusta was unprecedented, and will probably never be repeated. Furthermore, Nike’s ingenious marketing of the Tiger phenomenon, like their that of basketball star Michael Jordan, tapped into the cultural zeitgeist of late 1990s America in a unique, time specific fashion.
Again, “it” cannot be repeated because “it” has already been done.
But in addition to growing public interest in golf, Tiger also succeeded in transforming the manner in which the sport is played. The PGA Tour had traditionally been dominated by players aged between 30 and 40, and it was a game of technique where pristine ball-striking and experience were the keys to success.
However, Woods’ innovatory application of the strength and conditioning training models pioneered in fully modernized professional ball sports such as football and basketball meant that the PGA Tour, course owners, and equipment manufacturers have spent most of the last 20 years attempting to catch-up to the Stanford University graduate’s superior levels of strength, swing-speed, fitness, and athleticism.
Courses have grown longer (“Tiger Proofing”, the process was first called), balls have become lighter, and clubs made more powerful as the sport has adapted to a professional landscape increasingly dominated by big-hitters. In this context players like Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, and Rory McIlroy might accurately be regarded as Woods’ disciples and the age profile of the Big Three players who have emerged as heirs to the 40-year-old’s throne of the past year – McIlroy (25), Jordan Spieth (22), and Jason Day (28) – is a testament to the manner in which Tiger has succeeded in making golf a young man’s game.
Woods has done more than anybody else over the last 50 years to transform golf into fully modernized, global and inclusive professional sport, and whatever views one might have on his personal character, that legacy will prove far more enduring than the number of major championships he retires with.
[Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images]