Editor’s Note: This story was excerpted from the November 23 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.
Tiger Woods is the rarest of athletes. At his peak, he transcended his sport. People who couldn’t care less about golf watched in their millions on Sunday afternoons to see him roar. So the 15-time major champ’s announcement that he is calling time on life as a full-time pro feels like the end of an era.
Woods, who is recuperating from devastating leg injuries from a car crash, told Golf Digest he would have to be more selective about competition from now on. “I think something that is realistic is playing the Tour one day, never full time ever again, but pick and choose,” he said.
Woods dragged his conservative country club sport, of whispering commentators, rippling applause and impossibly manicured greens into the mainstream. His ripped physique put middle aged rivals with their bulging waistbands to shame.
In his years of torrid success between 1999 and 2008, the American was the most recognizable sporting figure on Earth. His towering drives, soaring iron play and clutch putting so intimidated foes that he won even when he wasn’t playing well – the mark of a true champion.
His stardom sent advertising revenues, TV deals and prize money through the roof. There were two types of tournaments, those featuring Woods and his Nike Swoosh and all the rest.
Notable athletes before him did bust out of their sport’s fan base. Michael Jordan was huge – but basketball was less global when he reigned. The NFL and baseball still mostly attract American eyes. Soccer had transcendent stars, like Pelé and Diego Maradona, but the beautiful game never fully conquered the key corporate and media market in the US.
Tennis, cricket, motorsport and track and field had icons but smaller footprints. In the last 50 years, Woods may only have been dwarfed in crossover appeal by Muhammad Ali, who was as much a stratospheric cultural and political figure as a champion boxer.
After he won the US Open on a broken leg in 2008, Woods’ celebrity was overshadowed for a decade by sex scandals, a DUI arrest and back surgeries. Despite becoming the first Black winner of the Masters – a tournament with a checkered racial past – in 1997, he faced criticism for not doing more to condemn racial injustice. But his staggering comeback Masters win in 2019, his first major in 11 years, revived his legend.
Woods only plans part-time professional play from now on. But one thing is certain.
If he hobbles around Augusta’s fabled Amen Corner in a future Masters within reach of a sixth green jacket, millions of fans normally immune from the charms of a good walk spoiled will be tuned in.