- Eric Adelson, ESPN The Magazine
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Remember this quote from Earl Woods? Remember what he predicted for his son, Tiger? "He's the bridge between the East and the West," Woods once told Sports Illustrated. "I don't know yet exactly what form this will take. But he is the Chosen One. He'll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power."
That quote was met with derision, and it's still dismissed as fatherly hubris, but maybe now it's time for Earl Woods' prediction to come true. Maybe now it's time for Tiger Woods to impact nations. Maybe now it's time for the greatest golfer in the world to leave the PGA Tour and start his own circuit.
We're not talking about a few stray PGA Tour events, like this week's AT&T National at Congressional, hosted by Tiger. We're talking about an international schedule of new tournaments that could grow both his brand and the game.
Woods is the first athlete in a long time—maybe ever—who doesn't need his league. He is the Oprah of sports—the most likeable athlete alive, according to a Harris poll, and the most successful. He ranks behind only Winfrey in Forbes' latest list of most powerful celebrities, with $115 million in yearly income. And so much of the PGA Tour's financial success comes directly from him. The Tour negotiated a $1-billion TV deal after Woods won his first Masters, in 1997, and total annual Tour purse has nearly quadrupled in the Tiger era, to north of $270 million. That's not inflation, people. Calling Woods a magnet for revenue is like calling Big Brown trainer Rick Dutrow's shirt a magnet for moisture.
"Tiger is our tour," Kenny Perry said after Woods' knee injury shelved him for the rest of the calendar year. So why not use this year's layoff to make like Justin Timberlake and go solo?
He can recruit whoever he wants to play against. The cameras follow Woods wherever he goes, and make stars out of those in his orbit. Can you name the golfer who nearly beat Woods in the U.S. Open? Sure: Rocco Mediate. We now know Rocco better than any male cyclist outside of Lance Armstrong. There was an ad in the New York Times recently celebrating Mediate for a tournament he lost! Now name the golfer who actually beat Woods and won the Masters. Much tougher, right? (It's Trevor Immelman.)
So if Woods held a handful of his own tournaments a year, all over the planet, who wouldn't want to bail on a smaller PGA event to play? When Tiger turned pro, nine Tour members earned $1 million annually in pay. A decade later, that number is 99. Don't think pro golfers aren't aware how their bread is buttered.
Woods can have IMG produce the events, and the networks would likely line up.
"TV wouldn't be the problem," says former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson. "If Tiger asked to see me, I certainly would take the meeting." And yet the PGA Tour owns Woods' likeness and image whenever he appears on a golf course. With Woods closing in on a record 18 majors, there's simply no reason all that money should leave him and go to a bunch of suits.
"All the PGA Tour is really providing is the umbrella organization," says CNBC sports business analyst Darren Rovell. "The local tournaments run themselves. The scary thing is, it's not that hard to replicate things."
This doesn't have to be a parallel tour, forcing other players to leave the PGA Tour as well. Think of Southwest Airlines in its infancy, starting out with a few routes, borrowing a few passengers while the hub-and-spoke behemoths trudge along. There's no limit to the potential for growth over the course of the coming years, while Woods remains in or near his prime. The Tiger Tour could eventually go public, and allow fans and others to buy stock in Woods himself.
But this is about much more than money and viability. This is about building a better life, a better game, and even a better world.
Woods must play 15 events per year to remain a PGA Tour member. There's no certainty he wishes to do that on a surgically-reconstructed knee. Even if the Tour suspends that rule just for him, what real reason does he have to play more than the four majors? He can just as easily drop out of the Tour and play only the Grand Slam events—where he's exempt for years (or for life) based on past victories—plus a couple of others that help his charity. (One example: the Deutsche Bank Championship, which benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation.) So he can chase Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships and build a new legacy at the same time.
More importantly, Woods can undo the PGA Tour's vice grip. The Tour has excelled as golf's Microsoft, building its own business while foreign tours struggle to compete. Seve Ballesteros dropped out of the PGA circuit in the '80s because of the 15-tournament minimum, and a generation of European golf pros followed his lead, torn between the opportunities of the PGA Tour and their loyalty to family and homeland (and appearance fees).
Former top-ranked golfer Greg Norman suggested a world tour in the early '90s, only to be snubbed by commissioner Tim Finchem, who later proposed the World Golf Championships. Even that fizzled, going from international in theory to American in practice. A Tiger Tour could finally grow world golf to a new level.
Imagine if Woods played the four majors—none of which are run by the PGA Tour— plus six more on six different continents every year. Imagine the quality of courses he could choose in places like Dubai and China. Imagine the clamor among nations that would attend the bidding for Tour stops. You think international cities fall over themselves for the Olympics or places on the F1 circuit? Just wait.
That's where Woods could impact people, and nations. More than a decade after his arrival on the professional golf scene, the number of minorities at the top level of the game has not risen dramatically, if at all. With the exception of a very few young upstarts like Anthony Kim and veterans like Vijay Singh, golf is still mostly white, and mostly filled with fat cats. A Tiger Tour might change that simply by showcasing Woods in more countries. And the added money from negotiating his own TV contracts could go straight to buying starter sets and greens fees for hundreds of thousands of children all over the world. Or Woods could simply build schools and roads and irrigation fields. Bill Gates left the corporate world to improve the lives of millions, and Tiger Woods has more charisma and more star power. The only real difference is that Woods doesn't run his own show. Yet.
Goodbye PGA Tour. Hello world.
Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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