Alternate Shot: Popularity contest

Originally Published: March 6, 2005 World

Some 40 years after the Jack Nicklaus-Arnold Palmer rivalry reached full tilt, we now have striking similarities in Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

Woods is, of course, playing the role of Nicklaus, the steely-eyed winner whose personality is often exuded only through his golf game. Mickelson is like Arnie, a man of the people with an infectious smile and a swashbuckling style on the course.

Decades after Nicklaus and Palmer were at the heights of their careers, it is still debatable which was the more popular player. And after years of owning the world of golf, Woods is now being challenged for that role by Mickelson, as evidenced by the equal cheers they received during the final round of the Ford Championship at Doral.'s Jason Sobel and Golf World's Ron Sirak debate which golfer is the most popular in the world right now.

Who is the world's most popular golfer?

Show any non-golf fan the Green Jacket from the Masters, and they're likely to tell you that a nice shade of blue might look better.

Show any non-golf fan a newfangled hybrid club, and they will likely have no use for it.

Show any non-golf fan a picture of Tiger Woods, and, well, they're likely to ask how he finished this week.

Such is the popularity of the world's top-ranked golfer. The adoration for Woods transcends golf, even transcends sports, to the point where everyone wants to know him and know about him. At golf tournaments, fans want to see both Tiger and Phil; in all other situations, Woods is the man who gets a bigger reaction from the masses.

His marriage last year to the former Elin Nordegren was entertainment's biggest story in nuptials since Ben and Jen, or Brad and Jen, or well, one of those celebrity marriages. The point is, no athlete this side of Michael Jordan would have created such a frenzy. Mickelson has a kid, people congratulate him; when Tiger has a kid, the baby will be signed to a multi-million dollar endorsement deal.

Perhaps Tiger is more popular because of his multi-cultural background? Or the combination celebratory fist-pump and 1,000-watt smile? Of course, there is also the golf. Woods owns eight major championships and 50 career worldwide titles. And as he showed in the final round at Doral, Tiger still knows how to win when the pressure is on.

And nothing will keep him more popular than that.

-- Jason Sobel


Tiger Woods may be the best player in the world -- and he is -- but the most popular player in the world is Phil Mickelson, and it is precisely because Tiger is the best. Phil's popularity pulsates from the fact that he is full of human frailty. Mickelson is a lot easier to relate to for us mere mortals because he has let us down so many times. While Woods is an amazing talent, he projects an attitude that suggests he comes from a different plant. When Tiger hits a less-than-perfect shot he reacts as if an unfathomable injustice has penetrated his world. He expects success, and how many of us can relate to that? When he hits a great shot it is greeted with the pump-fist salute that screams "I told you so." And how many of us have that sense of entitlement?

When Phil hits a shot that goes astray he has the bemused looked of a puppy who can't understand why he has just been whacked across the nose with a rolled up newspaper. And when Mickelson hits a great shot, it is greeted not with smug expectation but rather with the "Aw shucks" smile of a guy who is not exactly sure he deserves the success he has just achieved. People always connect to those athletes who seem to overcome their humanity to achieve success more than they do to athletes who seem to have shed their humanity on the road to greatness. Mickelson is nothing if not human. Tiger is nothing if not super-human. The fans will always bond more with one of their own. That's why Phil is the People's Champion -- or, more often than not, the People's Almost Champion. He is the most popular player in the world as much because of his failures as because of his successes. Those failures have established a common ground on which the masses feel common meeeting him.

-- Ron Sirak
Golf World

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