The most influential athlete on the planet... is a golfer?

The most influential athlete on the planet... is a golfer?
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First Published: Sat, Jun 09 2007. 12 45 AM IST
Updated: Sat, Jun 09 2007. 12 45 AM IST
The late Earl Woods, he knew stuff. His son wasn’t going to change the world, but he was going to alter sport as we knew it. Fellow like that, a phenomenon, you want to give him a moniker worth remembering. You can’t have “Mortimer” in a headline about killer instinct, no one’s going to be intimidated by a “Thurston”. Cyril the champ? Ogden the astonishing? Fughetaboutit.
But “Tiger”? Tiger’s strong. Memorable. Headline writers love it, though one more “Tiger mauls field” and it will be death by cliché. Sponsors think it’s catchy. Even golfers prefer it because there is absolutely no joy in saying “I got my ass kicked by Eldrick”.
Unless you’re a hermit or convinced that television has rays which addle the brain, you’ve heard of Tiger Woods, even if you privately wonder “what the *&^% is ‘jolf’”. But recognizing Tiger is not enough, if you’re not familiar with his skills, you need to study him this summer. Ask yourself: Can you be a true sports fan if you’re not properly acquainted with what the world’s most famous, richest, influential athlete does?
We see so much sport we tend to get blasé. Been there, seen that. But there’s nothing ho-hum about Tiger, or his pal Roger, who God sent down in case the Sistine Chapel required another ceiling makeover.
It is fitting Woods and Federer are buddies. How these men think, few understand. They are scholars in the science of winning, the Stephen Hawkings of sweat. Woods has 12 majors in his chase for Jack Nicklaus’ 18, Federer has 10 majors as he hunts down Pete Sampras’ 14. In trophy count, they are not the best yet; in all-round ability to make a spherical object obey their commands, they are unrivalled. They play their games better than they have been played before.
Federer is more beautiful, but Woods is more intriguing because he has not just radically altered our idea of golf but also its place in the sporting universe. There is golf BW, Before Woods, and golf AW, After Woods.
Golf is still a white-dominated sport in many places, still played at exclusive clubs with no sense of humour, still expensive. But Tiger has also made golf what it never was. Fist-pumpingly cool. Accessible. Energizing for young people. He’s ensured it’s no longer illegal to discuss “swing planes” at dinner.
Golf before Woods rarely got confused with “athletic”. His 300-pound (about 136kg) bench presses and twice-a-day five-km runs changed that. He has four Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year awards up there, jostling shoulders with Lance Armstrong, Michael Jordan, Mark Spitz. Go figure.
Tiger’s a one-man refutation of every tedious criticism of golf. Dull game? This guy gives a stationary ball just that precise amount of spin, pace, drift, elevation, so it goes 200 yards through wind, over a creek, past sand, to rest 10ft from a pin, uppercuts the air in delight, and then watches with an interrogator’s thin smile as his opponent chokes. And this is dull?
Recently, an article on Woods began with a discussion of his gluteal muscles, and hell, you know you’re special when writers are seriously debating your ass. Since when did this happen with golfers? Since when did golfers become the measure of greatness in sport? If a squash player starts dominating, you know what they say? He’s “the Tiger Woods of squash”.
You know any other athletes who get paid more than $2 million (Rs8 crore) to appear in some tournaments, or ensure TV ratings go into a coma when they don’t show up? A tournament promoter closed his well-known event recently, mostly because it wasn’t on Tiger’s schedule. How many athletes wield such influence?
Forget the “jolf” insults, you want to watch this guy. At a major. When it counts. Doesn’t matter if you can’t tell birdie from eagle. Just see the sniper’s concentration. The monkish routine. The geometrician’s precision. The talent to correct himself mid-round. The unerring sense of drama. The absence of errors under pressure. Even these days, not quite at his shining best, he’ll grind and somehow compete even with his “B” game, scowling and spitting and unsatisfied with anything but excellence. It is a pleasure and an education.
No doubt Tiger’s popularity is boosted by a weighty US media, which inexplicably fails to relate to the charming sophistication of the European Federer. But still, it’s somethi ng, ain’t it, that a golfer has become arguably, possibly, the greatest sportsman of his time.
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First Published: Sat, Jun 09 2007. 12 45 AM IST
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