- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 10, 2008

PGA Tour player Charles Howell III stares in open incredulity at the question:

“What has been Tiger’s greatest impact on golf? Are you serious? You mean other than the fact that he’s made our sport wildly popular and made everyone involved with it incredibly wealthy? Do you mean other than the fact that he’s rewritten the record books at every step? I guess my question is: What hasn’t Tiger completely changed about golf?”

The fact is that in the 12 years since Tiger Woods turned pro, golf’s unquestioned king has had a greater impact on his sport than perhaps any athlete in history.

As the 32-year-old star begins his pursuit of a once-unthinkable Grand Slam at the Masters today, one has to acknowledge the changes that Woods has wrought on the game’s competitive landscape as his most obvious contribution to the sports world.

With 13 major titles and 64 PGA Tour victories to his credit, Woods is well on his way to dwarfing the records of previous golf demigods Jack Nicklaus (18 majors) and Sam Snead (82 PGA Tour victories).

“In the game’s professional era, simply entertaining the thought of achieving a Grand Slam would have been considered preposterous before Tiger,” said Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie recently. “He’s completely redefined the parameters of possibility. Count me among those who think we’ll never again see his equal.”

Video:Tiger Woods clear-cut favorite at Masters

But look beyond leader boards and Woods has had a similarly profound effect on the professional game.

Economically, Woods‘ career has been nothing short of a financial windfall for anyone connected with the professional game. In 1996, the year Woods turned pro, the average PGA Tour purse was $1.12 million and four players eclipsed the $1 million mark in earnings. Last year, the average purse was $5.81 million and nearly 80 percent (99 of 125) of the tour’s fully exempt players topped the $1 million mark.

Gleefully riding the Woodsian wave, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem has seen his salary increase from $900,000 to $5.2 million during that time. Though other pro sports are still more lucrative, none can match golf’s roughly 500 percent economic explosion in the past decade.

Physically, Woods also has literally reshaped the game. Once one of the lone sporting bastions of burgeoning waistlines and ha! couture, Woods has introduced the game to mainstream fitness and fashion. His three-hour-a-day, six-days-a-week workouts and nutritional regimen of chicken, fish, vegetables and fruit have forced players to tweak more than their swings and equipment.

Little more than a decade ago, the Ray Floyd, Craig Stadler, Nick Price, Fuzzy Zoeller prototype was the norm. Now smokers, drinkers and the generally exercise-allergic are the exception. Our fathers’ tour spent its free time in the bar; Tiger’s tour spends it in the gym.

“Gary [Player] was one of the only guys who was truly fitness-conscious during our era,” Jack Nicklaus said. “Then you had a few guys come in like Greg Norman and Nick Faldo who were extremely athletic and very fit. But Tiger’s taken it to a whole new level. You look around now, and there are flat bellies everywhere.”

Throw in Tiger’s hip, form-fitting Nike threads, and golf is no longer perceived as the sport of lumpy old men in loud clothes.

“I think the perception of golf has changed,” said Woods after winning the inaugural FedEx Cup at Eastlake Golf Club in Atlanta in the fall. “When I grew up, golf was not a sport that you wanted to play. You wanted to play basketball, football and baseball. Golf was certainly not looked at as a cool, hip sport. I think that’s changed.”

While that perception has unquestionably changed, the demographics of the sport both inside and outside the PGA Tour ropes have been slower to follow.

According to the National Golf Foundation, the initial massive jump in popularity enjoyed by the sport between 1996 and 2000 seems to have flat-lined. In 2000, there were 30 million golfers in the United States and course construction was at a high mark (nearly 300 new courses annually). By the time the National Golf Foundation (NGF) published its 2006 survey, the number of Americans regularly participating in the sport had dropped to 28.7 million, and nearly as many courses were being closed as opened.

Woods‘ play spiked golf’s overall popularity, but the game’s expense, time commitment and difficulty conspired to halt that explosive growth. In terms of minority interest, Woods‘ impact has been statistically enormous, if effectively less obvious. Since 1996, the NGF reports more than a 360 percent increase among black golfers older than 18 (from 360,000 to 1.3 million). However, those black participants still represent less than 5 percent of the nation’s golfing population.

The anticipated “Tiger effect” has yet to come to fruition if one looks at the demographics of the PGA Tour or college golf teams. Woods is still the tour’s only player with first-generation black heritage. And only one player on tour (Australian rookie Nick Flanagan) traces his interest in the game directly to Woods.

“I watched him win the Masters in 1997 and instantly dropped soccer for golf,” said Flanagan, who earned a battlefield promotion to the PGA Tour late last season because of his three victories on the Nationwide Tour.

But Woods calls for patience on this front. Through his Tiger Woods Foundation and affiliation with the First Tee, Woods has raised nearly $90 million for academic and athletic scholarships and programs and introduced the game to more than 10 million young people, most disadvantaged and between the ages of 5 and 17.

“If you want more minorities, you’ve got to have a bigger base,” said Woods. “As my dad would say, that will take at least 20 years before you start seeing it. You can’t just have 10 players and expect that one of the 10 is going to make it to the elite level. You’ve got to have hundreds in order to expect one to make it to the elite level.”

In fact, it might be unrealistic to ever expect the Tiger effect to produce a rival inspired by his greatness. Woods‘ success is the confluence of some extremely rare competitive extremes: his unique upbringing, his outrageous physical talents, his unearthly focus and his incomparable commitment. Few players on tour have known Woods longer than fellow California native Arron Oberholser, who dueled with him on the junior and college circuits.

“There is only one Tiger Woods,” Oberholser said. “The cool thing about Tiger is that he’s such a good dude. He’s just like the guy next door, except he’s the most famous athlete on the planet. He’s a regular guy. But make no mistake, he’s the most special player the game has ever seen.”