Jon Miller, vice president of programming for NBC Sports, flew back from the U.S. Amateur last week and hopped into a dispatched car at Kennedy Airport. Before long, he and the driver, who was black, were chatting about golf, and specifically Tiger Woods.
"The guy says to me he never played golf in his life," Miller said the other day. "He's never even set foot on a golf course, and he's telling me how he and his friends watch golf on TV all the time, and especially when Tiger is on. He says that's all they talk about -- golf and Tiger, and mostly Tiger."
These days, well into his third full season on the PGA Tour, Woods, 23, remains the talk of golf. He and some of the finest players from around the world will tee off today in Akron, Ohio, in the NEC Invitational, the second of three events in the inaugural World Golf Championships.
It's a four-day, 72-hole stroke play competition involving 41 players who made last year's Presidents Cup teams and the '99 Ryder Cup squads. The champion earns $1 million of a $5 million purse, and there's no cut, guaranteeing $25,000 for last place.
And Woods's presence almost certainly will guarantee another high rating for CBS Sports, particularly if he is in the lead, or close to it. Considering that his worst finish in his last seven events is seventh place, with two victories in the United States and another in Germany, that should be the case.
The rabid Tigermania that swept the country after Woods won the 1997 Masters by a record 12 shots has abated over the last two seasons. In fact, crowds at the PGA Championship 10 days ago outside Chicago seemed far more infatuated with Spain's 19-year-old Sergio Garcia in his quest to catch Woods in a stirring final round. Woods held him off and prevailed by a shot for his second major championship in three years.
But TV executives, marketing experts and tournament directors across America -- and most of the golfing world -- have no doubt that his impact on their respective businesses has been profound, and growing with each passing day.
Miller, for example, says Woods is probably worth at least one rating point for a network telecast, and often times several more, if he's in contention on the weekend.
"Tiger has the same effect Greg Norman had in his prime," Miller said. "People love to watch him. They like his talent and his ability, and his style is to take risks. Golfers are awed by him. If he's five back going into Sunday, people think he can always catch up, so they watch."
Said Rob Correa, Miller's counterpart at CBS Sports: "In this year's Buick Invitational, which he won, we did a 6.3 [rating] on Sunday. Last year on NBC, they did 3.3. The PGA Championship this year did 6.9. Last year, when he was out of contention, it was 5.7. He's worth at least a rating point, and sometimes as much as a 40 to 50 percent jump."
In the marketplace, where he remains his sport's runaway highest-paid endorser of products, Woods recently restructured his deal with Nike, more than doubling its previous value and paying him about $90 million over the next five years, according to Golf World Magazine. He also has deals to use Titleist equipment and golf balls, and endorses American Express and Rolex, with many more to come for a player whose yearly earnings are now believed to be around $75 million, most of it off the golf course.
"We wanted to keep a long-term relationship with Tiger," said Mike Kelly, a spokesman for a recently reshuffled Nike Golf unit that will continue to produce an exclusive and upscale Woods line of apparel. "When we first started, the concept was this was a radical guy, a changing of the game, which is not really what he's about.
"He's a much more conservative kind of guy in what he wears. Look at him from The Masters in '97 and what he was wearing at the PGA, it's a much more classical look now. His line will have golf shoes that really look like high-end dress shoes. We'll use Italian fabrics in the slacks. We're appealing to the real golfer, not just people who happen to play golf."
Still, Woods's most significant impact clearly has been in attracting new faces of all hues to the game, with a major push toward getting more minority children to take up a sport once considered the exclusive realm of the country club kids.
The First Tee initiative undertaken by the sport's major governing bodies to build courses and provide instruction in the inner city and other nontraditional golf areas was a result of Woods's spectacular success and the huge following he quickly attracted.
Many of those followers have gravitated to courses and driving ranges to learn the game, as well as increasing crowds wherever he plays. Ben Brundred, the long-time chairman of the Kemper Open, estimates his presence to be worth at least an additional 10,000 patrons a day.
"He spikes the ratings, he sells tickets, he sells whatever product he touches," said PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem. "He is a superstar who transcends golf, just the way Michael Jordan did in basketball. The bigger question will be long-term -- his impact on increasing interest among kids. If it continues the way it's been going, and I don't see any reason that it won't, in 20 years he'll definitely add to the growth of the game, and that will have a profound impact on our tour because so many kids who might have gone to football or basketball will be playing golf."
At the PGA, Woods was asked what he considered to be his most significant impact on the sport.
"I think I've gotten, more than anything, minority involvement in the game," he said. "Whether I win a lot of tournaments or not, I think my mark will probably be the kids that followed. Minority participation has increased exponentially, and as it grows, it will be wonderful for the game to have more diversity, and I think it will make golf a better sport."