If Tiger Woods has really made golf -- horrible term -- "fashionable," if he has really opened it up to millions as a spectator sport (remember, it was booming long before Tiger in terms of participation), then surely this experiment should yield positive results: Try stopping someone on the street and asking him if he began following golf when Tiger Woods went pro. Shouldn't be hard. OK, now when you've found such a person, ask him to name a second or third golfer he follows, or whose name he even knows. Never mind third; just see how many can name a second.
Has Woods really elevated golf, or is his fame just the latest example of the celebrity blitz syndrome that has overtaken sports in recent years? Or, stated another way, a few years ago golf magazines boosted their circulation and the game's appeal by putting movie stars on their covers. Since Tiger Woods, magazines that usually feature movie stars on the cover have boosted circulation with Woods. But in a couple of years, if Woods should go into a tailspin or somehow injure himself, would there still be a golfer on the cover of GQ and People? If so, that golfer had better hurry up and make an impression, because we haven't heard his name yet.
It's a little embarrassing the way the nation's sports press is gushing over Woods as if he were something more than a great golfer. I mean, it's bad enough when they do it for any athlete, but does golf really touch the heart and soul of America? Has anyone satisfactorily answered the age-old question of whether golf is a sport or just a game? I've seen debates over whether golf is better exercise than fly-fishing; I'd like to see one about whether it's better exercise than chess.
This isn't an anti-golf diatribe. Or an anti-Tiger diatribe. It's an anti-celebrity diatribe. Here's a quote from the New York Post's George Willis, published on Monday after Wood's amazing 15-shot, 12-under-par victory in the U.S. Open: "He is the Jordan of the sports world now in much the same way Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali were in their day. At age 24, he is an icon and represents all that goes with it. He may already be the most recognized, the most watched athlete in sports. Clearly, he is the most successful ... Jordan wasn't just a basketball star. He was a star period. The best professional athlete walking the planet. That is Woods now. Not just a golfer, but the best performer in any game."
Now, exactly how do we know that Michael Jordan was even "the best professional athlete walking the planet"? You'd like to assume that Willis means best in athletic ability, but then how would Woods have surpassed him in that area? Woods "plays golf better than Shaq or Kobe play basketball," writes Willis, "better than Dan Marino throws a football. Better than Mark McGwire hits home runs." Really? And how do we know that? Shaq, Kobe, Marino and McGwire are all the products of a system of competition that began in their grade schools, colleges and pro leagues, one that bottlenecked the cream of perhaps a million of the best athletes in their sport to the pro ranks.
Has Woods faced anything like that kind of competition from anything like that kind of talent? Am I being unfair? No -- I'm asking questions, ones that I think should be answered before we decide that Woods' superstardom stands for anything more than his own mega-marketability. It certainly doesn't mean representing anything outside of your sport, as Muhammad Ali did. In fact, standing for something might seriously curtail such marketing appeal.
Tiger Woods is very good and very popular, but he'll be the next Babe Ruth when golf means as much to America as baseball. Until that is so, let's call a moratorium on the rhetoric.
WHY CAN'T SAMMY BUNT?
Several years ago baseball analyst Bill James remarked that "it's a characteristic of bad front offices to obsess about the secondary characteristics of their best players." As is often the case with James, an observation made 10 years ago sounds as if it had jumped out of yesterday's headlines. The Chicago Cubs have 20 or so crappy players, one or two good ones and one great one, and their new manager thinks he's going to turn all that around by harping on what the great player doesn't do well.
Two years ago Sammy Sosa hit 66 home runs and won the National League's most valuable player award, the Cubs got some decent pitching and they made the playoffs. This year Sosa is the same player, the pitching goes south and all of a sudden the reason that a team projected to lose is losing is that Sosa doesn't steal an additional nine or 10 bases, or that he strikes out a lot. The Cubs have gone through several managers in recent years, but in Don Baylor the most inept front office in baseball seems to have finally found a manager to symbolize its team concept. If the Cubs had Pedro Martinez, Baylor would blame losses on Martinez's weakness as a hitter and demand more batting practice.