How has Woods changed golf?

Originally Published: February 13, 2007
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

It is now 15 years since Tiger Woods first walked onto a PGA Tour course by playing the Nissan Los Angeles Open as a skinny teenager, and Woods will commemorate that momentous occasion this week by … well, by skipping the tournament, since you asked.

It fits. Whatever else one makes of Woods' journey from that first tour event to a career standing today that puts just about everything around it into eclipse, the one thing beyond argument is that Woods has been in firm control of almost all of it.

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Oh, sure, life intervenes. It always does. Woods got married; he suffered the health deterioration and finally the loss of his father; he mourned the passing of Byron Nelson, the man who befriended Woods when he was a teen and whose consecutive tour-victory record Woods now pursues, or at least vaguely threatens, even if Woods himself isn't convinced he's in a full pursuit.

But in terms of golf, the record is clear: Tiger Woods is the greatest force in the modern history of the sport, so confident that he is willing to remake his game even while in the midst of his greatest successes, so strict in adherence to his goals that he long ago moved past the shadowy area of popularity and on into pure purpose. He makes business decisions both on and off the course, which explains why the Nissan Open is out this week -- Woods is focused on the Accenture Match Play Championship a week beyond it, part of his walk-up to the Masters, and it is the majors about which he truly cares. (Asked about the possibility that people might think he's ducking L.A. because he has never won it and doesn't want to risk his seven-tourney victory streak, Woods essentially replied last month that people can think what they wish. Pure purpose, indeed.)

Of course, you knew all that. What is more interesting than Woods' ability to win, and to make cold-blooded decisions, is the question of whether all that winning has contributed in any meaningful way to the ascendance of golf in the world, across race lines, across class lines … across something other than the bottom line.

It'll take years more to know that. It's fair, of course, to assume that it hasn't hurt the industry any to have a multi-racial superstar who almost from the beginning was able to segue seamlessly between the corporate world and the golf world. But in terms of the actual face of golf, virtually nothing has changed at the highest levels. There are fewer black players on the tour now, for example, than there were when Tiger was born.

Tiger Woods
AP Photo/Bob GalbraithWoods made his PGA Tour debut as a 16-year-old amateur in the 1992 L.A. Open.
Is that on Tiger's back? Certainly not. It is not, nor was it ever, Woods' job to revolutionize the diversity mix of a sport that remains inherently closed off to lower incomes and that isn't easily played in neighborhoods the way basketball and baseball might be. Some might have wished it, but it was never realistic.

Beyond that, I'd argue that any honest look at Woods' career suggests nothing so much as a player whose appeal is utterly nonspecific when it comes to race and class. My kids are white as paper, and Woods makes them want to play golf almost every time they watch him seize the moment and win a tournament. That's the full dynamic. The vast majority of the time, Woods raises the profile of sport, not race.

Fifteen years seems a long time, and it's difficult to fathom that Woods was only 16 when he played the L.A. Open in 1992 as an amateur. But, really, Woods was an old soul even then. Put it this way: When you're going on national TV at age 2 to demonstrate your aptitude for something, you are likely to grow up fast, to assume some of the adult postures while you're still a kid.

It was all a walk-up to Woods commanding nearly $60 million in guaranteed endorsements the day he turned pro in 1996 without going totally insane. Instead, he began almost immediately caretaking the role that his father (and, by the way, golf in general) wanted to thrust upon him, that of the latest savior for the sport.

That's actually pretty much what has happened. Considering the flight of tennis from the national consciousness (and its minimization as a participatory venture) over the past couple of decades, it can be speculated that, without Woods or a Woods-like figure, golf might have suffered the same bleeding out of interest. And we might yet discover a first generation of Tiger followers, good athletes who specifically choose golf, who hone their own interests in the sport because they have Woods as a shimmering example -- in real time, on multimedia -- of what they might become.

What they see is a player who remade his swing not once but twice, and both times despite already achieving staggering success. They see an athlete who trains at the highest levels of fitness despite playing a sport that can produce a legitimate competitor like, say, John Daly. They certainly see a person who came to grips early on with his talent and has never appeared remotely afraid to take responsibility for his career.

What I'm saying is that, 15 years ago, Tiger Woods walked onto the course at the L.A. Open as someone who already understood where he was going, which only separates him from 99 percent of the rest of the 16-year-olds in the world and at least a plurality of the adults. Not a bad start.

Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland," published by HarperCollins, is in national release. Kreidler, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mark@markkreidler.com.