Most famously, Babe Ruth has been credited with saving baseball after the Black Sox scandal. Riding on the wave of the women's movement, Billie Jean King more or less created women's professional tennis. And Muhammad Ali kept boxing alive for its last hurrah.
But really, especially over a sustained period of time, has any one athlete ever mattered so much to a sport as Tiger Woods does to men's golf?
Click on the audio link above to hear Deford's take on the issue.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
In sports like hockey and basketball, a single superstar still needs help from teammates. And the entire sport can't rise and fall on the success of just one player. Not so for golf, says commentator Frank Deford.
FRANK DEFORD: Most famously, Babe Ruth has been credited with saving baseball after the Black Sox scandal. Riding on the wave of the women's movement, Billie Jean King, more or less, created women's professional tennis. And Muhammed Ali kept boxing alive for its last hurrah. But really, over a sustained period of time, has any one athlete ever mattered so much to a sport as Tiger Woods to men's golf - anyone ever?
Now, keep in mind that he hasn't won a major in six years; that he's regularly been injured, and scandalous too. Not to mention that at the age of 38, he's past even a golfer's prime years. Yet he remains the Christmas tree on which golf hangs all its ornaments.
As soon as Woods announced that he was out of the Masters, first-day resale ticket prices plummeted about 20 percent, and then TV ratings fell almost a third.
In any lucky tournament that he does appear in, there are invariably two stories. A: How's Tiger doing? B: Oh yeah, are there some other guys actually trying to win this thing?
Of course, much was made of the fact that for their issue that came out just before the Masters, the sport's leading magazine, Golf Digest, decided that for the cover, really, no other existing golfer merited such recognition, so they made a cover girl out of a player's fiancÃ©e. No, at least it wasn't a Kardashian, but it did attract a little attention, inasmuch as the lady is wearing a sports bra and stretch pants. And just in case you missed the discreet sex angle, the cover tipped her "6 Moves To Lower Your Scores."
Naturally, Golf Digest was lambasted for such pandering, especially since it turned out that, with or without the brassiere attire, no LPGA golfer has made the cover since 2008. But what the choice also speaks loudly to is the world's other male golfers. Which is to say: Yes, somebody would win the Masters despite the fact that Tiger was not there to publicize it, but really, nobody much cares who.
Coincidentally, the week that Golf Digest came out with that six moves bit of business, a 19-year-old named Lexi Thompson won the first LPGA major of the year. Now, to show off their equality bona fides, you want to bet the boys at Golf Digest won't be making a few moves to get her on a cover real soon? Thompson is touted as the best American in years; maybe she'll be the Tiger Woods of women's golf.
Nah, sorry. There's never been a Tiger Woods of any other sport. No reason to think there ever will be another Tiger Woods of anything.
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MCEVERS: You can hear Frank Deford right here every Wednesday.
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MCEVERS: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.