Such is the impact Tiger Woods has made that even if he quit golf today he would be more than a footnote in sporting history
Thursday 28 August 1997
Even people who are mystified by the heed given to the propulsion of a small white ball over open countryside cannot fail to be impressed by those statistics.
They establish beyond all reasonable doubt that Woods, at just 21 years old, is already one of sport's leading figures. The clue to his future, and what a future it promises to be, lies, I believe, not only in power and imagination but in the subconscious desire for genuine heroes.
It helps that golf is a well-mannered game, but where in sport is there anyone so talented with such a pleasing profile. Woods's smile is now as famous as his ability to make course architects look ridiculous. If he scowls people are quick to forgive him.
What we see is not only brilliant application of a gift but enthusiasm, intelligence and quite remarkable maturity. If Woods is not the greatest player golf has ever seen, he will probably get there.
When you look at Woods, hear him in conversation, there is the unavoidable impression that he knows there is a lot to be thankful for. There is the demonstrable fact of an ethnic background that might have made it difficult for him to break into an overwhelmingly white sport but for his demeanour and ease in communication.
Such is the impact Woods has made that even if he quit golf today he would be more than a footnote in sporting history. After only twelve months on the USPGA Tour (with winnings of almost pounds 3m) people associate him with golf in the way they associate Muhammad Ali with boxing and Sir Donald Bradman with cricket. This is a true measure of fame.
As for the institution of fame itself how many performers in sport today can claim to meet the criteria of history? A sportswriter I once knew, a man of considerable talent and understanding, once said in a rueful moment that real sports heroes were becoming so thin on the ground that soon they would be an extinct species. "There are plenty of people who can play and fight, but not many I would be happy to have round for dinner," he said.
We hear and read so much about the scale of earnings in sport today I suppose it's only natural to suppose that old values have become redundant. Largely due to the influence of television, substance often takes second place to presentation.
It is triumphantly claimed in some quarters that sport, in the main, is a damn sight better than it used to be. But what you have to say is that very few sports performers now are likely to come up smelling of roses. Sportsmanship excites the public about as much as brass rubbing.
Consequently we look back on people whose natural heroism captured the nation's attention. You can make an anniversary out of most events, triumphs, tragedies, the passing of great men, but in the context of this theme something that occurred 60 years ago on Saturday is worth putting forward.
On 30 August, 1937 Tommy Farr challenged Joe Louis for the heavyweight championship of the world in New York. Farr was the sort of hero I've been going on about. A former collier from Tonypandy in South Wales he once walked to London looking for work and by the age of 23 had taken part in more than 100 professional contests, often fighting twice a week.
When Farr went in with Louis the nation held its breath. People throughout the land huddled around wireless sets eager for news of Farr's progress. Bonfires blazed on the hills around Tonypandy and reports were sent down to working miners. It was thought in the United States that Louis, a renowned puncher, would end the fight quickly but Farr took him the distance. You may think me biased in this but it was the best performance ever given abroad by a British heavyweight and made Farr a hero for the rest of his life.
On this note of nostalgia I leave you with the thought that Tiger Woods represents the stuff of which history is made. One of the few heroes in an age of cardboard cut-outs.
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