Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Tiger Is The New Babe Ruth

Much has been said in the past week since Tiger Woods' victory waltz through the Accenture Match Play championship about his place among the most dominating athletes of all time. I don't know how he could be anything but number one.

On the course, Tiger can hardly be compared to his modern-day peers. What's most telling though is that he really never was - since he won the 1997 Masters, he has been compared almost solely to historical figures: Palmer, Nicklaus, Snead, et al. Essentially, even in his youth, his pedestal was being crafted for him. His immediate, permanent ascension to the top of the golf world solidified this practice.

To say he is bigger than the sport would ignore the significant cultural, socioeconomic and historical ties that golf has around the world. However, to say he is bigger than the PGA TOUR would be a transparent fact. Events Tiger skips usually don't warrant a mention on SportsCenter, or on the front page of USA Today, or get play on (unless Phil manages to stumble into a win, then it's a 50-50 shot, at best). He is a breathing mythical icon - the unequivocal mark of greatness in his sport - and he's just now entering his prime.

It's telling that his name is constantly brought up during European Tour broadcasts as a benchmark for greatness - meanwhile, he's literally half a world away, either playing in an event that matters, preparing for an event that matters, or savoring the spoils of previously winning an event that matters. These events matter, of course, on a relative basis, because to most of the sports world, the only golf tournaments that matter are the ones in which Tiger Woods is an active participant.

A microcosm of Tiger's absolute cultural dominance comes in Tiger's video game with EA sports. In Madden (also an EA publication), one player every year is singled out and given the privilege of being on the cover. Yet, the star of the game is the NFL shield - the league, and the game play, is far bigger than one superstar. NBA Live is the same way. T-Mac or Dwyane Wade or Carmelo Anthony is made the game's poster child, yet does not carry the burden (or financial benefit) of the game's entirety on his shoulders. This is the polar opposite in golf. The GAME ITSELF carries Woods' moniker, because he as an entity is such a stronger sell than anything else remotely associated with the game of golf.

(John Madden's moniker is on the NFL game, but his presence in the game itself is minimal, and one can argue that the Madden video game franchise has surpassed anything else John Madden as a man has accomplished in terms of impact on American culture.)

Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Vijay Singh, and legends of the past exist in TIGER WOODS 08, but serve as auxillary pieces in the grand scheme of things. Note that the actual game is incomprehensibly addictive, as any gamer will tell you. In turn, the video game consuming public, who for the most part are either passive golf fans or have no interest in golf at all besides this game, see professional golf AS Tiger Woods. If I went to my buddy's apartment, we would 'play T-Woods' not 'play PGA.' This may seem like a small thing, but years of inundation makes this repetitious practice have a lasting impact on the perception of professional golf.

(Somehow, the impact of video games on culture is lost on many, which is a tangent that could have a book written about it someday, since they have been inundating the brains and social patterns of youths since 1970-something.)

Elite TOUR courses are no longer modified or updated, they are "Tiger-proofed." Cognizant players hit weight racks, treadmills, pilates classes and supplement stores because Tiger treats his body like an elite athlete would instead of a frat pledge or accountant or middle school teacher.

One mention of his name makes you into a temporary star. Ask Rory Sabbatini. Or Ian Poulter. This is a fascinating topic in and of itself, that strikes me as most akin to the relationship between unknown emcees beefing with rap stars. In the circles who follow your sport or musical realm closely, you are granted 15 seconds of notoriety if your words strike a strong enough chord. Quickly, the party of lesser power rescinds his notion of superiority, for fear of the wrath they feel in said sport or musical realm. Either that, or their comments fade into the abyss of obscurity within a matter of weeks, and maybe days. So if Jay-Z is Tiger, Ian Poulter would be on par with Agallah. This analogy works, because unless you either follow golf or rap music very closely, you haven't heard of either of them.

Michael Jordan is the most common sports analogy to Woods because he's the most recent, but I have always thought of Tiger most comparably to an American cultural icon who dwarfed his peers, fellow competitors, and historical precedents, in and out of the playing arena: Babe Ruth.

In 1927, Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. The Philadelphia Athletics, who came in 2nd in the American League standings that year, hit 56. AS A TEAM. Ruth was a force unlike anything ever seen in what was then a station-to-station game catered more towards singles and doubles than the long ball. Ruth's star power that came from his larger-than-sport presence and talent did more to alter the way baseball was played, viewed and marketed than any one person ever did to that point. There are also Ruthian anecdotes buried into American nostalgia, both on and off the field, like his famed called shot, or strong penchant for vices of the flesh. Because of all of these wonderful things, he has grown into a mythical American superhero, like Paul Bunyan, John Wayne, and possibly Optimus Prime.

But even Ruth had statistical peers eventually, when Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx arrived. Tiger doesn't really have any yet. Phil Mickelson, a legendary talent and competitor in his own right, would have been a sporting hero had he shown up 15 years earlier. Unfortunately, he didn't, and his prime coincided with Tiger's total eclipse. Els, Goosen, Singh, Garcia, Scott, and others all have appeared to be on the precipice of entering his atmosphere, before either 1) drifting back down to earth, or 2) watching Tiger click his afterburners and return to his own galaxy.

Babe Ruth was the ultimate sum-of-all-necessary-parts needed, during his day, to become the American legend he will always be. He played in our Rome, for the greatest franchise in the history of American sports. He was big in stature, bigger in personality, and biggest in skill. The three biggest draws in sport during his day were baseball, boxing and horse racing. The sports media landscape was unsplintered, focused, and carried a boys' club aura that made pressers chummy with players - this permitted the idyllic imagery of all that was majestic and right with Ruth to permeate coverage of him.

Tiger is, essentially, a perfect storm for his day, too. He is a youthful in appearance and articulate behind a microphone in an age that demands aesthetic perfection from its idols. In a time where every celebrity's breath, word and burp is recorded and posted online, his demeanor and persona is just about flawless in the public eye. He is covered by a sports media that is very splintered and user-specific, but because he plays golf, and is not tied to any particular media market, he will never be limited by what city he plays in. His youthfulness and greatness makes him appealing to young people, while his respect for history and greatness make him appealing to older people.

Tiger Woods has hit some Ruthian shots in his day. But, now that I think of it, it's more accurate to say Babe Ruth was pretty Tigerian.

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