Under His Thumb

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thursday is opening day at the 101st U.S. Open, where they've just about got the billing straightened out.

Yes . . . "Presenting Tiger Woods and 155 other golfers, competing right here on a grassy blast furnace called Southern Hills with the year's second major title at stake."

Is there any other way to look at it? Well, no. That's not the way it's done these days. Tiger tees it up, he dominates the story lines, a circumstance that is especially true this week.

Not only is Woods defending the U.S. Open title he won last year at Pebble Beach by a record 15 shots, he is also trying to win a record fifth consecutive major championship, keep alive his chances for the Grand Slam in 2001, move past a record $25 million in prize money, and generally move forward, faster, higher and in directions no one has traveled before.

In September 1996, not quite five years ago, Tiger Woods played his first tournament as a professional.

Two weeks ago at the Memorial, he played his 100th tournament.

So the sport's greatest player and the world's most influential athlete has arrived at a noteworthy crossroads, where he has an opportunity to break ground in strange and unexpected ways.

If his first 100 tournaments were awesome, what can we expect from the next 100?

According to those closest to Woods, as well as golf insiders, there's going to be more of the same, but more . . . and better.

On the course, where Woods has won 28 tour events as a pro, he is on the fast track to reach some of golf's grandest milestones--Jack Nicklaus' 18 major titles, Sam Snead's 81 PGA Tour victories, possibly Byron Nelson's 18 victories in one year.

Earl Woods, Tiger's father, appreciates 100, a nice round number, as much as anyone else.

"Here's the kicker," he said "What does he want to do? "Now, the next 100 tournaments are going to be indicative of his search for immortality, to achieve a record no one has ever achieved before. This has been a Woods policy since he started junior golf. And we call it 'Let the Legend Grow.'

"The reason for that is, we discovered there were no [African Americans] who had ever established any kind of record or had any amount of success at any level of golf. So we started out at junior and we set the bar. We set the bar in amateur, we set the bar in collegiate and now he's setting the bar in professional.

"And in setting that bar, he has to exceed Jack Nicklaus. Not just pass him, but substantially pass him."

Woods is on his way toward doing just that. When he won Nicklaus' tournament, the Memorial, for the third consecutive year, Nicklaus admitted he can no longer be surprised by anything Woods accomplishes on the golf course.

"He is amazing," Nicklaus said, and the amazing has become routine.

Last year, Woods set 27 PGA Tour records and passed $20 million in earnings--more than any other player in history has won--and he had not yet played five full years.

He has won four tournaments this year, all since March, and has banked $4,235,847, which puts him about halfway toward his single-year record of $9.18 million set last year.

Golf clearly is Woods' show and Roger Maltbie, NBC analyst and former player, doesn't expect that to change in Tiger's next 100 tournaments.

"What's he won, 28 out of 100?" Maltbie said. "This is pretty unheard-of stuff. Tiger only gets better. He's winning everything he's looking at. And the only thing I can see that would change [things would be] if he gets hurt or loses interest.

"In fact, I expect him to be even more dominating. It's amazing. It's also frightening."

It's also going to be financially rewarding. You could call it a Tiger bonanza, not only for himself, but also for his peers, his sponsors and the PGA Tour.

Where Tiger walks, money follows. And apparently there's only going to be more of it.

Woods, of course, already is loaded. His average weekly endorsement income is $385,000.

"Tiger has entered a new stratosphere," said Mark Steinberg, his agent at IMG.

Woods' three primary sponsors are Nike, General Motors' Buick Division and American Express, and a deal with Disney is in the works. Each company benefits from its association with Woods, Steinberg said.

"Companies are looking to use Tiger's brand and image to take their products to a different level," he said. "I think that he has done a very good job of, yes, selling the product. But he's more. He is also a commercial icon for them as well. Not just out there pitching products, but someone who has values, very respected, someone people can look up to.

"We don't capitalize on every opportunity that comes our way," Steinberg said, adding that he turns down 1,000 deals for every one that he accepts. "We'll manage his career in a conservative way as it relates to the quality of the deal. We want to keep his brand value very high."

And the trickle-down impact on sponsors is felt at every PGA Tour event. In 1997, Tiger's first full year as a pro, purses totaled $77.6 million. This year, they are going to exceed $185 million.

Fees paid for the right to be the title sponsor of a PGA Tour event are expected to double to $6 million in 2003, which also will be the first year of a new four-year television contract. Early speculation is that the TV deal--now at $650 million--could grow close to $1 billion.

That is a tremendous number for golf, which has never really been a ratings winner--except when Woods is playing. When he won the Masters, the CBS telecast drew a 13.1 rating, the second highest of all time. What was No. 1? The 14.1 for Woods' first Masters triumph in 1997.

Golf attracts an audience that satisfies the well-defined demographic goal of particular sponsors, but no one believes that golf's majors will approach the ratings of the Super Bowl or World Series.

"You're not going to see 10 ratings for weekly golf tournaments," said Rob Correa, senior vice president of programming at CBS.

So regardless of Woods' impact on television in his next 100 tournaments, there is probably a ceiling on how much television money will be available.

The fact remains that more players will be playing for more money than ever before. And Earl Woods knows who to thank for that.

"Every pro on the PGA Tour should go out and kiss Tiger's hand," he said. "And the wives should kiss him on the lips because they are going to have more money to spend because there is going to be more money to win. It's as simple as that."

He did not hesitate when asked if he believed PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem appreciates Tiger.

"Only a blind man could not appreciate what Tiger is doing for the tour," Woods said. "Tiger is making the tour competitive, from a public relations point of view and a television point of view, with the other major sports in the United States, which is unheard of."

There is a murky area in the TV negotiations, involving the theory that higher broadcast fees would be charged for events that Woods plays.

"This is negotiation strategy," Earl Woods said. "Hell, I'm a negotiator and I know I'd do that too, to try and throw as much smoke in the damn fire as I could. But who's to say what tournaments Tiger is going to play in and how far in advance they would know?"

Maltbie understands the dynamics of such an arrangement.

"Well, there's a track record of where he usually plays, where he is going to play," Maltbie said. "It would just stand to reason, if it was me, and I was going to negotiate, I would want X dollars for each tournament's rights fee he was going to play. I'd say, 'Wait, that network has him eight times and I have him twice?' It's got to complicate things.

"One of the downsides of having a guy as dominant as Tiger, when Tiger is not playing, I think there is becoming a perception that it's a non-event. It loses importance if he's not there."

And we have learned just how important it is to a tournament if Tiger is there. In his next 100 tournaments, the money is just going to get bigger.

If Woods is at an event, attendance rises 15%-20%, which could mean as much as $1 million in increased ticket sales, parking, concessions and merchandise.

As for Woods' television entanglements for the next 100 tournaments, Steinberg says his client has no interest in his own TV package. There will be no Tiger TV, although you can be sure it's an idea that has been considered.

"I would think of Tiger and television as more of an investment, if he wanted to buy a station," Steinberg said. "That's a business decision. I mean, the Golf Channel has 'Tiger Tuesday.' But if I wanted to do a Tiger superstation, showing all of his money winnings, rolling tape of all Tiger, that's not of any interest. That's an ego-stroking thing."

Woods remains a huge fan of cyberspace. Besides his role as spokesman for gaming heavyweight EA Sports, he has launched his interactive site, http://Tigerwoods.com, which offers live scoring feeds from his scorecard (from http://PGATour.com), statistics and positioning of his shots in 2002.

The IMG interactive division predicts big things for the Tiger site. Meanwhile, there is the more traditional venue of television, and CBS' Correa, who has seen as much of Woods on television as anyone, says Woods is a crossover star who is just going to get bigger.

"The audience is a little younger, a little more urban, a little more female," Correa said. "Because his appeal is so broad, who would have thought that the most famous athlete in the world would be a golfer? It's inconceivable.

"So what will we see in the next five years? More of that. I don't see people getting tired of him. He's not on TV every week so you get sick of him. And America always loves winners--winners who dominate.

"His meteor will continue to rise. Think about this: Who is he not good for--outside of the people who are losing to him, and it's good for them because they're making more money."

Correa says the primary goal of every television interview with Woods is to get him to smile. It lights up the screen, Correa said. But it's not just about smiling, it's about a smiling winner.

"You can give Americans all the charisma they want, but if you're not winning, they kind of consider you a fake," Correa said.

And there doesn't seem to be anything phony about what Woods does. Certainly not on the golf course.

Consider his victory in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach last year. In 1972, Nicklaus won there with a 290 score. Last year, second place was 287. And Woods was 15 shots better than that.

"What he did last year at Pebble Beach, well, nobody who saw it should have believed their eyes," Maltbie said.

As Woods begins working his way through his second 100 tournaments Thursday at the U.S. Open, maybe the best way to predict what's going to happen is not to try. At the very least, it would be wise not to set limits on what Tiger can do.

"Only a fool would do that," Earl Woods said. "I've been trying to tell them that for years.

"He is just now growing into who he is and what he is. And in the next 100 tournaments, he flat knows he is the best and it's going to be reflected in all kinds of ways on the tour--intimidation, gamesmanship, deference to him as the No. 1 golfer."

The agent seconded the father. Steinberg said the only thing to do is to predict that Tiger will win every one of his next 100 tournaments.

"Of course, that's impossible," Steinberg said. "But if you set it unrealistic, something he can have trouble with, he seems to do it every time. I don't know if we have ever seen anyone with such a flair for the dramatic, a sense of calm about himself in all situations, of knowing what to do at the right time.

"He never ceases to amaze us."

Time will tell. We have 100 tournaments to find out, and the meter starts running Thursday.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Chart Toppers

After about five years as a pro, Tiger Woods is on a pace to reach some of golf's all-time marks. He already leads in money won:

GRAND SLAM TOURNAMENT VICTORIES

1. Jack Nicklaus: 18

2. Walter Hagen: 11

3t Ben Hogan: 9

3t Gary Player: 9

5. Tom Watson: 8

Note: Tiger Woods is tied for 12th with six.

ALL-TIME PGA TOURNAMENT VICTORIES

1. Sam Snead: 81

2. Jack Nicklaus: 70

3. Ben Hogan: 63

4. Arnold Palmer: 60

5. Byron Nelson: 52

Note: Tiger Woods is 18th with 28.

ALL-TIME PGA MONEY LEADERS

1. Tiger Woods: $24,739,307

2. Davis Love III: $16,402,361

3. Phil Mickelson: $16,320,667

4. Nick Price: $13,994,795

5. David Duval: $13,571,329

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

TIGER'S FIRST 100

Victories: 28

Majors: 6

Top 3: 45

Top 10's: 68

Earnings: $24,739,307

*

Does not include European Tour events (except British Open).

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