There can be no doubt that the cult of celebrity has taken its toll on actual sporting achievement. Very few are interested in who won the most recent tournament. Even fewer have more than a nodding acquaintance with the names of the journeyman professional players and only the real aficionados can relate the names of the leading amateurs. Everyone, and I mean everyone, knows every detail of the life and times of Tiger Woods for, although he may be the greatest exponent of the game he is also a celebrity.
It is not only the young and innocent that have succumbed to Woods' hysteria. Every couch potato that has never set foot on grass, far less a golf course, is imbued with Woods' mania. Tiger Woods has simply transcended the game that made his name and in the process he has arguably become the biggest marketable commodity in sport. Tim Henman may be big in middle-England but he is relatively unknown overseas. David Beckham's name may be celebrated on the playing fields of Europe and Asia, but as yet it is unknown in America. Tiger Woods is a phenomenon in an altogether different class.
A measure of the Tiger's importance to golf can best be gauged from TV viewing figures in the USA. The final day's play at this year's US Open attracted 5.6m viewers to the American network. Last year, with Woods leading the field, the viewing audience was 9.1m. TV executives refer to changes in viewing numbers as the Tiger Woods factor. When the Tiger exits the leader board the armchair golfers follow suit and reach for the remote control.
Every player on both the US and European Tours has been reduced to a walk-on roll in the great theatre of Tiger Woods. Golf, every tournament and every tour winner are secondary in the ongoing Woods saga. Jim Furyk may have won the US Open but Woods' mediocre performance generated endless on-air discussion and raised whole pages of press analysis of his apparent loss of form and eventual defeat. Reference to Jim Furyk's achievement endured only as long as the interval to Woods' next tournament appearance before it was again eclipsed by headline news of the Tiger's performance.
We may wince and cringe with empathetic embarrassment for Woods. We may also writhe a little over the attention given him and even object to the TV coverage afforded his time on the course. But even if we wish him well and hope for his eventual return to form, it is as nothing compared to the daily evocations of TV executives, sponsors and advertisers. Their prayers for his return to pre-eminence must be heart rending for Woods' success equates with commercial success at every level, from Nike selling clubs and balls to the hot-dig vendor at the tournament venue and the home delivery pizza-man.
Lets face it; we may have enjoyed the romance of Philip Golding's win in the French Open but we are nevertheless addicted to the cult of celebrity. We may relish in the underdog having his day - Golding after all waited 14 years for his - but we are enthralled with the roller-coaster successes of a celebrity champion.
Sport is all about winners and losers and, although we may feel for the loser, everyone loves a winner. The commercial people know this, TV producers know this and we respond to the hype that they generate. Tiger Woods knows this too and has cashed in on it. He is generally held to be the world's wealthiest sportsman and is certainly the world's wealthiest golfer.
We may wish it otherwise but we live in a commercial world where celebrity counts for everything and he of the biggest name picks up the biggest stash of money. For golf, if not for Woods, it is a pity that his celebrity status has eclipsed his achievements in the game for although golf will certainly survive the Tiger it will never be quite the same again.
Despite worldwide economic recession and the consequent reduction in sponsorship of sport, prize money in golf has increased and Tiger Woods' cult status has played no small part in this increase. Far from detracting from it, his dominance in the game has added to its popularity and must have made a significant contribution to recruitment to it. His dominance and celebrity status may have brought him unimaginable wealth but the spill over from his super-stardom has also served the game well.
Win or loose, Woods' minders need only keep his name to the fore to maintain his celebrity. Golf, however, is left with a problem. A celebrity in the field is not enough to sustain interest if the celebrity is not on the leader board. The punters want to see an elegant, handsome, erudite, cool and composed champion, exuding charisma and charm, vital and always threatening in his supremacy. Is there anyone in the game likely to match his championship record? There is certainly no one who can replace Woods in the charisma stakes. Woods has set a precedent; golf is now sexy and it will have to sustain the hype if it is to maintain its new image.
Golf will suffer from the sad demise of Mark McCormack but a permanent loss of form from Tiger Woods could plunge it into indifference in the publics perception and everyone, every tournament player, every TV and business executive and every tournament venue hot dog seller will suffer. After the Tiger the great game might never be quite so great again.
|| 7 - JULY 2003