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The Driving Force of Tiger Woods

Sports: Profits aside, his entry into pro golf may inspire minorities to the game.

August 29, 1996|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Spencer Carr, 10, stood on the first tee of the Delaware Park Municipal golf course in Buffalo, N.Y. He tugged on his blue baseball cap. He took one practice swing. He turned to his father with a determined look on his face.

"Today I'm gonna play like Tiger Woods," he said.

Charles Carr had known it probably would come to this. After all, Carr, an African American, is director of the Buffalo Inner City Youth Golf Program, which actually began under a different name two years ago.

"It was the Tiger Woods Fan Club," Carr said. "He's always been an impact figure here."

Since Woods, the 20-year-old from Cypress, won his record-setting third consecutive U.S. Amateur title Sunday and decided to turn professional the next day, he has had the impact of a golf ball between the eyes of the sports world.

Suddenly, Woods is no longer a mild-mannered golf prodigy from Stanford University, but a global golfing commodity with a single endorsement deal worth $40 million. He is capable of altering network television, picking up Madison Avenue by its ears and showing minorities the way into a sporting arena that they, for the most part, have been able to enter only through the back door, primarily by caddying.

In terms of endorsement income, fan interest, media hysteria and social ramifications, Woods' entry into the personality-driven, big-money world of professional sports is unparalleled.

"He's going to be phenomenal," said Mike Kelly, marketing manager for Taylor Made Golf, a Carlsbad golf club manufacturer.

Actually, he already is. Young Eldrick was nicknamed "Tiger" by his father Earl in honor of Earl's South Vietnamese partner in combat in Vietnam. The elder Woods, a former Green Beret, was a lieutenant colonel who served two tours of duty in Vietnam.

Tiger's parents knew they were raising a phenomenon.

"See, this is the first intuitive golfer ever raised in the United States," Earl Woods said. "Before, black kids grew up with basketball or football or baseball from the time they could walk. The game became part of them from the beginning. But they always learned golf too late. Not Tiger. Tiger knew how to swing a golf club before he could walk."

When he was 9 months old, Tiger was swinging a club. By the time he was 3, he was hitting golf balls on "The Mike Douglas Show." He was winning international golf events when he was in second grade.

Woods is the most successful amateur golfer in United States Golf Assn. history. The legendary Bobby Jones won five U.S. Amateur titles, but not even Jones won three in succession as Woods did.

He is the most heralded golfer to come out of the amateur ranks since Jack Nicklaus, who is regarded by many as the greatest of all time. Yet golf's amateur record book reads like Woods' biography. It includes three U.S. Junior Amateur titles, a 42-3 overall USGA record in match play, a 20-2 match-play record in the U.S. Amateur, a 17-consecutive match-play winning streak and his three consecutive U.S. Amateur championships.

He had to come from far behind in Sunday's final at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in Cornelius, Ore., against Steve Scott. The 19-year-old University of Florida golfer led by five holes after the morning round of 18 holes and was still ahead by two holes with three holes to play.

But Woods birdied two of the last three holes to even the match and force extra holes, then won on the second extra hole, the 38th of the day.

Despite all that, Woods sounded as if he will be nothing more than a shaky rookie in his pro debut today in the $1.2-million Greater Milwaukee Open.

"I'm always nervous," he said. "When I tee it up on the first tee, I'll be nervous, and then it'll go away."

Still four months from his 21st birthday, Woods will play his first pro event comforted by a security blanket of money.

He has signed with International Management Group and agreed to an endorsement contract with sports-merchandising giant Nike that is believed to be near $40 million for five years. He also is weighing million-dollar deals to endorse golf balls and clubs, and agreements worth thousands to play tournaments overseas, one-day corporate outings and to wear advertising patches.

If anything can come close to matching the power of Woods' 340-yard drives off the tee, it may be in corporate boardrooms and ultimately in the stirring of a social consciousness.

"He is a huge breakthrough in sports, but not only in the terms of dollars," said Ken Shropshire, a professor in the legal studies department at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Finance.

Shropshire, an expert in sports economics, is the author of "In Black and White: Race and Sports in America."

"Tiger Woods could become the first full-blown crossover that affects not only marketing, but inspires more people to enter the game of golf," Shropshire said.

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