As the entire sports world was guzzling the Kool-Aid known as Tiger Mania, I was reacting to the reaction.
I felt disassociated from the Woods love-in because I wasn’t sure why the masses still relate to him.
As a kid, I was all in on Tiger. I played the video games and watched all four rounds of every event on TV. I loved that he brought some swag to the course. For the first time I saw a golfer look like me and celebrate the way my heroes in other sports celebrated.
And as much as I was cheering for him, I was cheering for the idea of him.
At the age of 21, Woods became the first black man to win the Masters, and the youngest ever to do so. The idea that a black man could set records winning a tournament called “The Masters” when black people previously weren’t allowed entry at Augusta National because it was exclusively for “the Masters” of slaves, was the reason I cared.
It was also the reason so many black people cared, regardless of their age. Father’s Day get togethers in my family were about tracking the leaderboard. My grandfather often asks for a Tiger update before saying hello.
It’s not hyperbole to say Tiger Woods was a Barack Obama-like figure of excellence and inspiration among minorities, well before Obama was in our consciousness.
Cheering for Woods was partially faith in the idea that his story would promote tolerance and inspire other black golfers. At the age of 16, Woods started putting on golf clinics to help change the face of the sport, which – unfortunately – hasn’t come to fruition. (Although he inspired the likes of Tony Finau, who is of Tongan and Samoan descent, the number of black players is still low.)
But that was then and this is now. As the years have passed, my connection to Woods has waned.
He hasn’t used his platform to impact social change like other iconic athletes. He’s been mired in controversy surrounding adultery and drug abuse. And he’s been out of sight, out of mind, and out of the conversation in recent years when it comes to top talent in the sport.
So why is he still so beloved? Why does he still transcend the sport and connect to a unique audience that don’t seem to care at all about what happens on the links?
When I recorded a podcast recently with former CFL and NFL star Davis Sanchez, and he told me he teared up watching Woods at the Masters, I knew something was going on that I couldn’t grasp.
I asked my grandfather why he still lives and dies with every shot and he couldn’t explain it, other than saying, “I’m so used to cheering for him all these years. I always want to see the black guy do well. To watch golf is to cheer for Tiger.”
But it’s not just minorities or even working class people that have been sucked in.
Even decorated Olympic medallist, Michael Phelps, couldn’t contain his excitement on 16.
One watching another.
— GOLF.com (@GOLF_com) April 14, 2019
During this divisive time, the love for Woods is bipartisan. Following his victory at The Masters, both sitting President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama tweeted to congratulate him. Trump took it a step further, announcing he was awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, joining the likes of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Charlie Sifford.
There were more than 1.4 million tweets about Tiger Woods on Sunday and more than 1.8 million about The Masters.
As Woods became the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter for a full day after his triumph, I found myself curious about the phenomenon I was witnessing. How could my grandfather feel so moved? How could I feel nothing?
So, I asked some marketing professionals to dissect what about an athlete’s charisma or story arc pulls in fans the way Tiger has. They both had only seen this level of attraction to figures in politics, where people can gain and regain trust over the span of 50 years, not 10-15 like an athlete.
According to Richard Powers, National Academic Director at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, the fact that Woods is himself a known brand helps Tiger Mania spread like wildfire.
“Tiger has transcended the sport of golf – he is undoubtedly the most recognized athlete in the world. And that attracts everyone – any news about him resonates with people because ‘we all know him,’” Powers says.
David Soberman, the Canadian National Chair of Strategic Marketing and Professor of Marketing at the Rotman School of Management, believes there are three things that make Tiger’s story unique.
“The first is, it’s rare if not unheard of, for athletes to win 11 years after having won their last major championship, whether we’re talking about tennis or golf or boxing. I mean people might come back after three or four years, but this is 11 years,” he explains. “The second thing is he faced tremendous physical challenges. To even be able to hold a golf club at times was a challenge and so to be able to overcome those challenges is also incredible.
“The third is reputational challenges. When he won last time, he was seen as the golden boy of American sports. He had a stellar reputation being the nice guy on the tour and a role model. And of course, that was all tipped over with all of his marital problems and so his reputation suffered terribly to the point that many of his major sponsors basically left him because he was no longer what they wanted to put forth as someone that had the values associated with their brand.”
Overcoming all of those factors hooks people. Rarely do you get to witness such an eclipse of circumstance. I assumed that his status as a beloved athlete would cease to exist after the 2009 car crash, the infidelity scandal, the tabloid headlines, the sex addiction rehab, the physical ailments, that awkward 2010 press conference, and the 2017 mug shot.
But according to Powers, Woods’ struggles helped his likeability.
“I think it is because it showed he was human – his issues are not that uncommon in our society and people could relate. And people are more forgiving with our ‘heroes’ – we are prepared to give them a second chance,” he says.
Adds Soberman, “He never pretended like he didn’t do it and was rather contrite, in contrast to some people who do bad things. The things he did were such that a lot of people were willing to forgive him.”
It’s not just his contriteness that helps him. It’s also the charisma.
“When he explains how he’s golfing, he talks about tactical things but explains them, which brings the novice in to his level of understanding. He’s bringing people in to the tent, bringing them in his psyche on the course rather than speaking above them,” Soberman says, who adds that the trait is also found in Roger Federer, Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky.
Is there a way to qualitatively measure the charisma and gravitational pull an athlete has?
According to Powers, money is the best indicator.
“You can certainly measure it by TV ratings, size of endorsements, the changes to the game in terms of prize money,” he says. “That is why the other golfers appreciate what Tiger has done for the game – he has raised it up to a level that they could not have imagined and they enjoy a much better lifestyle as a result. See the number of pros that lined up at the clubhouse to congratulate him on Sunday.”
Woods has been loved by everyone because he represents something different to everyone.
He can simultaneously be David and Goliath.
Regaining his No. 1 status to some – prevailing from his 674th ranking to others.
Bouncing back from four back surgeries and four knee surgeries to some – being four majors away from passing Jack Nicklaus to others.
Like every good story, this has conflict, resolution and a happy ending – at least for now. We may never see another comeback saga like Tiger Woods, because everything had to go wrong for it to feel right for us to love him again.