The Global Tiger

Is Tiger Woods a cultural icon of globalization?

July 28, 2002

Is Tiger Woods a cultural icon of globalization?

Tiger Woods is unquestionably the greatest golfer of our era. Aside from totally dominating his competition, his success has served to promote golf among African Americans — and young people everywhere — who had never taken up the sport in such numbers in the past.

Yet, Mr. Woods refuses to be classified as African American.

To be sure, he does not deny having a black father, who is the one who actually taught him the basics of the game when he was still a toddler.

Instead, he emphasizes also that his mother is Thai and that his father, along with his African blood, also has Native American — and Caucasian ancestors.

This is why Mr. Woods refers to himself as "Cablinasian" — a term of his that combines his Caucasian, African, Native American and Asian heritage.

Mr. Woods is probably the keenest symbol of the age of globalization — a person who transcends nationality, race and culture.

Not that Tiger Woods himself is much of a revolutionary in this area. Disappointingly, he did not oppose male-only politics at the Augusta National Golf Club, or some other controversies surrounding exclusive golf clubs.

Many critics felt that his prominence and authority in the golf world would have provided him with more of a global conscience of the sport.

Yet, his success itself splinters the centuries-old exclusivity of golf. The fact that Mr. Woods, with his diverse background, is a person of color plays a significant role regardless of how he chooses not to classify himself.

He has also globalized the sport that he plays. When golf originated in Scotland in the 15th century, it spread like many other British sports — including soccer, rugby and cricket — to the far reaches of the world through the system of colonial expansion.

But unlike British team sports — which quickly lost their upper class character — golf remained the pastime of the truly wealthy for a very long time.

During the bubble years of the late 1980s in Japan, golf club membership cost as much as $200,000 per year! Not surprisingly then, golf's relationship to globalization evolved in a rather different fashion than, say, soccer.

It remained a sport of the elites. And that limited its reach as a truly "global" sport — even if it was played in many places around the world.

But Tiger Woods transformed golf from a game for rich executives into a game for the people. In other words, he "globalized" the game — by making it attractive for a much broader (and younger) population.

This is unlike Michael Jordan — who is undeniably an American product — Tiger Woods is fast becoming a global citizen.

That has allowed the Thais — thanks to his mother — and millions of other Asians to claim him as their own. As a result, they can root for him just as passionately as black and white Americans do.

That makes Mr. Woods a very rare bird: an athlete who is not expected to represent his country — and whose supporters hail from around the world.

The list of Tiger Woods' corporate sponsors also demonstrates his global reach. Sure, he does advertising for U.S. companies such as American Express, Buick and World Disney. But he is also a spokesman for Asahi of Japan and Rolex of Switzerland.

And, in the age of globalization, is it any surprise that Mr. Woods' earnings are also on a global scale?

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine reported that Mr. Woods is projected to earn $1 billion by the time he is 40, which is about 13 years from now. Those earnings include prize money and corporate endorsements.

He would have then earned more than twice the annual gross domestic product of Gambia — and only slightly less than Chad's.