No. 1 Like No One Before

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By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 5, 2007

In some ways, Tiger Woods is merely the latest steward of a lineage of athletic royalty. As the No. 1 golfer in the world, Woods holds the same distinction that Bob Jones, Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen held toward the beginning of the last century before ceding it to the likes of Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. They were followed by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson.

But as the dominant golfer of this century, Woods has reaped riches and encountered challenges his predecessors could never have imagined.

For Woods, being No. 1 means being able to say "yes" to anything -- from knocking down the mansion on his $40 million South Florida property to replace it with his own to founding his own PGA Tour stop in Washington at age 31 -- and being forced to say "no" to many things because of the overwhelming demands for his time. In an era when top athletes are celebrities and celebrity in the United States equates to royalty, life comes at Woods through an amplifier. Whereas Hagen courted public recognition as a means to a lavish lifestyle, many of Woods's indulgences are to preserve some distance from the public -- his $25 million yacht is named Privacy. Whereas Palmer's longtime agent, Mark McCormack, founded the marketing company IMG to seek out opportunities for athletes, Woods employs IMG in part to turn down requests.

IMG's Mark Steinberg, Woods's agent and close friend for the past nine years, said he gets countless requests every day from members of the media who want to interview Woods, from companies who want him to be their spokesman, from charities who want him to donate money, even from total strangers who write and ask if he'd mind showing up at their child's birthday party or bar mitzvah.

"I think it's fair to say in addition to being the No. 1 player in his sport, he's also the No. 1 sportsman in the world and one of the world's most recognizable celebrities," Steinberg said. "And that makes it extra difficult on him, just from the sheer demands on his time. But he understands that. . . .

"Can he go places and not be asked to sign an autograph or pose for a picture? No. But he still can go to the grocery store, and he does. He'll still go out and get himself a smoothie. He's going to go out and buy diapers, just like everyone else. He doesn't let his celebrity constrict him, but he knows he has to deal with things most people don't ever think about."

Time and Money

The world's top golfers have long benefited financially from their talent, though landing those benefits once required considerable hustle. After Hagen rose to prominence by winning the 1914 U.S. Open, he decided to see just how much that achievement was worth.

"I never wanted to be a millionaire," Hagen once said, "I just wanted to live like one."

Hagen made most of his money giving exhibitions, taking the gate proceeds and stuffing them in a suitcase before heading to the next stop and the next good time. He was an impeccably flashy dresser with a penchant for silk shirts and white bucks, and he never even owned a house until he retired.

The most famous golfer of that era, Jones, never relinquished his amateur status and still found that being No. 1 in the world had its rewards. One of Jones's first major coups was a series of instructional films produced by Warner Brothers that paid him $250,000, a princely sum in those days. He also signed a lucrative contract with the Spalding club manufacturing company to endorse its products, another major source of income for the rest of his life.

Players in the early years of the PGA Tour had to scramble for a living, Most of the leading pros of that era -- including Nelson, Hogan and Snead -- were forced to take jobs as club professionals to pay the bills and stockpile enough cash to play the tour. Promoters arranged exhibitions for the top players that earned them a few thousand dollars a round. Snead often would not step up to the first tee for such exhibitions until he had a signed check in his pocket.

Nelson had the greatest season of any player in history in 1945, winning 11 consecutive tournaments and 18 overall. His earnings that year were $63,000, including $30,250 over the streak. A few years later, after using most of that money to buy a ranch in his native Texas, Nelson retired.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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