Will Tiger Woods be the first sports billionaire?

Even before his stunning victory in the British Open, Tiger Woods was a golfing phenomenon. Now he has become much more, the single most influential figure in world sports, an icon to millions, the new Muhammad Ali, the new Michael Jordan.

Even before his stunning victory in the British Open, Tiger Woods was a golfing phenomenon. Now he has become much more, the single most influential figure in world sports, an icon to millions, the new Muhammad Ali, the new Michael Jordan.

And, pretty soon, the £500,000 purse he took away from St Andrews is going to look like a drop in the ocean compared with the billions of dollars he is likely to generate for himself, for golf, and for the economy of the world's golf-playing nations.

Already yesterday, media commentators on both sides of the Atlantic were speculating that Woods could become the world's first billion-dollar sponsorship franchisee. It's not clear exactly how much money he will end up being offered, and even less clear how much he will end up taking, given his reputation for modesty and pure professional dedication to the craft of golf, but it is clear that, what he doesn't earn for himself, others will revel in earning through him.

Across the US, a golf-course building mania has set in, and it's all down to Tiger Woods. He's done the impossible, making golf cool to young people, and broken down the sport's crusty image as a pursuit for pampered middle-aged white men with expanding waistlines.

After the victory in last month's US Open, the president of the NBC television network, Dick Ebersol, said Woods had completed what he called "the last step in a 3 1/2-year process to join Ali and Jordan as the only athletes in the TV generation to be larger than life".

The British victory, making Woods the youngest holder of all four major golf championships as well as the breaker of several course and world golfing records, has only spread the mythology.

The statistics speak for themselves: the only golfer to avoid a bunker in 72 holes at St Andrews, the lowest shot-count, 19 under par, in major golf competition history, the ability to make rivals look like floundering amateurs while showing signs of constant improvement in his game. "Tiger has no opposition, only a field," wrote George Vecsey in The New York Times. "Ali had Frazier. Navratilova had Evert. DiMaggio had Williams and Musial. McGwire has Sosa. Tiger has only himself and his caddie and his touch and his inner light, but that is enough."

In 1996, when Woods first turned professional, many industry observers thought Nike was insane to offer him a $40m sponsorship deal over five years. Golf accounted for only 2 per cent of the company's sales, and Woods was far from a sure-fire phenomenon then.

Now Nike is selling golf balls, golf shirts, clubs and carrying bags as though they were the last chocolate biscuits on earth. Already, an advert he did for Nike bouncing a golf ball on a wedge with awe-inspiring control has become legendary.

He has managed to sign a second official endorsement deal with Nike's golf equipment rivals Titleist and he has deals with American Express, Rolex, Wheaties cereal and Electronic Arts, which makes a golfing video game with the Tiger image.

Woods' career income from tournaments - $20m, including $5m this year so far - is starting to look paltry. Before his double coup, his father Earl estimated he could be earning $1.5m per weekend for sponsored appearances.

Woods has shown repeatedly that money is not his top priority. He refused to take part in US television advertisements out of solidarity with an actors' strike. And he devotes much of his free time to the Tiger Woods Foundation, touring at his own expense holding golf clinics for young, often disadvantaged children.

Whether he likes it or not, he is likely to become a mini-industry. At the peak of Michael Jordan's career, he was estimated to be worth $1bn to the city of Chicago, home of his team the Bulls, and around $10bn to the US economy.

With decades of golf-playing ahead, Tiger Woods could be putting that achievement deep into the shade.

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