Tiger, Tiger, burning bright

Young, black and gifted - and already extremely wealthy - Tiger Woods may not only reshape golf, but our future ideals
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The Independent Online
We cannot yet know for sure, but it is perfectly plausible that Tiger Woods will earn more money more quickly than any other human being in history. That is one measure of the importance of his astonishing victory US Masters golf tournament at the weekend. But his success - and more important, the response to it - has implications far beyond golf, far beyond sports, indeed far beyond money. It has implications for values in the next century.

Even people who cannot abide golf would be entranced by the story. A man aged 21 utterly dominates the top US golf tournament with a lead of 12 strokes, humiliating a whole generation of the game's top players. More than this, he has the cool, confident charm that encouraged a US TV commentator to remark that he "must be the most eligible bachelor in the world". His triumph is greeted with warmth and delight by the largely white southern US golf crowds - the game was at Augusta in Georgia - which is interesting given that he is a person of colour. His father is African- American, his mother Thai. He is the new, great American hero.

There are special features particular to the United States that explain this phenomenon. Race is one. He clearly has that ability to make white Americans feel good about race; like General Colin Powell, he is an outstanding human being who happens not to be white.

Class is another. He comes from a secure, well-connected upper-middle class family - his father was an army intelligence expert and he was on TV at the age of two putting with Bob Hope.

Golf is a third special feature. Golf, unlike American football, basketball, or indeed any other mainstream US sport, has an upmarket status on the social, financial and demographic scales. It is smart in that rich people vie to join exclusive clubs. It is associated with financial power - witness the number of times US corporations feature it in their adverts. And it is played by the relatively old. Since successful, richer and older people make a wonderful market, anyone who is successful at golf is immensely attractive to US advertisers. At the moment, Tiger Woods' main sponsor is the sports-wear manufacturer Nike, and already Nike's little emblem on his hat has flashed before several hundred million people. But rich people do not just buy sportswear. A hero golfer can sell anything. That is why he is being predicted to become a sports billionaire.

But there are attractions here which go beyond America which apply to the whole developed world, which give a global significance to this young man and which will mean that we may well hear much, much more about him over the next 40 years.

Think of the features that will make the early years of the next century different from the second half of this one. One is the growth of information. We are already bombarded with information; it will get much, much worse, as the variety of delivery mechanisms multiplies. To get messages clearly across this cacophony requires people who command recognition and respect, such as Tiger Woods.

Another feature will be the growth of leisure. Golf is a wonderful absorber of leisure time: I'm told by a colleague over from the States that he reckons it is impossible to get round a US course in less than four hours, given the regimented way the game is organised. (On many courses, your must travel in a golf cart round a specified track - you are not allowed to walk anymore.) Expect sports that successfully absorb a lot of leisure time to carry on growing - golf is a prime example.

Another feature will be globalisation and in particular the rise of East Asia as a dominant economic region. Golf is already strongly established in Japan and is now rapidly conquering the rest of the third time zone. Its particular attraction there is that it needs a lot of space. So in countries that are short of space relative to the population, golf becomes a particularly elite sport. This top-of-the-market image will propel it much faster in the newly-rich economies of the region. But Asia has up to now lacked stars to lift the game's profile. Now it has one. Tiger Woods, half-Thai, is the ideal symbol for golf in Asia.

Another feature that will dominate the next century leads on from this. There has, in the last 20 years, been a rise in differentials of income and wealth in many countries. Expect that to become more evident, not so much in the present developed world, but as a result of the growing importance of the newly-industrialised countries, in particular China, where wealth differentials are very large indeed. Golf has been prospering in part because it is an expensive game, a game of the elite. What is, however, only just beginning to show through is the rising importance of elite (or at least elitish) values: life-styles that spread down from the top rather than push upwards from the bottom. For the second half of this century life styles have welled-up from the mass market -- think of jeans or fizzy drinks. A century ago they descended from above. Expect a return to that pattern, where fashion is in the hands of the elite. Golf has been successful in terms of its growth, but it has not been a fashionable game: it will be in the future.

But perhaps the most dominant force of the first half of the next century will be the ageing of the developed world. Golf again is the ideal game for the burgeoning not-quite-so-young leisured class. You might imagine that ageing will increase the demand for older sports stars, and to some extent it will. But older people do not necessarily want people of their own age as their heroes. How wonderful that there should be someone of the next generation but one coming on now to inspire them. In any case, a golf star of any age will attract more attention than a star of a youth sport like, say, a sky-diving or mountain-biking.

Finally, you would expect an older developed world to show signs of wanting to embrace "older values": a desire for order rather than license, for tried-and-trusted remedies rather than experimental ones, for calm rather than chaos. There are other calm sports, but few can surely boast the same standards of good behaviour among the fans. Golf louts? Hardly.

And of course the wonderful thing about Tiger Woods is that he lifts standards of behaviour among celebrities. No rackets being thrown, no hotel rooms being trashed, no rows with the umpire, and certainly no indiscretions on Sunset Boulevard. He plays to this new world of older values.

Those values will show through increasingly in politics. It is fascinating that already people are suggesting that this young man, just 21, will some day become president of the United States. Who can know, but at least it is not an absurd suggestion. If that were to happen, 20 or 30 years from now, think of the implications for politics: that voters want people to represent them who are decent, hard-working, focused, honourable - plus, of course, famous and rich.