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Saturday, August 4, 2018

Tiger Woods, Excellence, and Inequality

Without Woods, golf wouldn’t be nearly as lucrative for everyone involved in the sport.

“We are all blessed by the genius of the relatively few.” – Warren Brookes, The Economy In Mind

Television ratings for the final round of the British Open were the highest since 2006. That Tiger Woods briefly sat alone atop the leaderboard on Sunday explains viewership that was 37 percent greater than 2017. Evidence supporting the Woods correlation is that 2006 was the last year he won the Open Championship. Perhaps even more interesting is that the 2018 and 2006 television ratings tied those of 2000. That was when Woods won the British at St. Andrews.

Simply stated, Woods is box-office gold. When he’s playing, fan interest soars. That’s particularly true if he has a chance to win. Paraphrasing Washington, D.C., radio host Kevin Sheehan, Woods doesn’t move the needle as much as he is the needle. 

The Unequal Elevate Us

So while Woods has a surly reputation among his peers on the PGA tour, they recognize how crucial he is to their fortunes. Professional golf is quite simply a shadow of its present self without Tiger Woods. His greatness as a golfer is a brilliant reminder of a crucial truth that the overly sensitive and emotional in our midst would rather not acknowledge: the unequal elevate us. Endlessly. Woods is the living embodiment of what is rather inconvenient to the class warriors in our midst. 

Woods has made many others well-to-do all the while making it possible for more and more to make a career out of golf. 

Without Woods, golf wouldn’t be nearly as lucrative… for everyone involved in the sport. The latter is what naïve opponents of wealth inequality miss. Ever focused on the gargantuan sums earned by the elites of at the top of sports, music, food, and technology (to name a few), they ignore that the earnings of the elite don’t come close to compensating them for all the wealth they create in their specialty.

Where does the money not captured by the elite go? It goes to those playing with or against those at the top, the people working for those at the top, and to the individuals who are employed by those trying to compete against the people at the top. In the process of Woods becoming stupendously rich thanks to his genius on the golf course, he’s made many others well-to-do all the while making it possible for more and more to make a career out of the sport that is golf. 

To show why the above is true, it’s useful to pivot to the book Out of the Rough by legendary caddie Steve Williams. Williams caddied for Woods during his most successful stretch on the PGA tour, and as he put it,

When I started, the prize pools were quite small by today’s standards, but since Tiger Woods came along and prize money skyrocketed thanks to increased TV ratings, a professional can earn over $1 million for a win.

That Woods was at one time the most unequal (translated: dominant) player in the history of professional golf was a given that no reasonable person disputed. So while Woods’s earnings easily eclipsed those of his contemporaries, the simple truth is that the very existence of Woods meant (and means) that professional golfers are regularly competing for pools of cash that greatly exceed the historical norm. Williams would know this better than anyone.  

Allowing for Greater Specialization

Indeed, during the time in which he carried Woods’s bag, the duo combined for 84 tournament wins. Combined is the operative word here when we remember that caddying is a very cerebral, very psychological, and very mathematical job. In modern golf, really good caddies are often the difference between winning and losing, and this is true even for people like Woods. Evidence supporting the previous claim is that caddies at the professional level take home 10 percent of the earnings won by the person they’re carrying the bag for. In Williams’s case, his genius as a caddy has made him a rather rich man; so rich that he actually has a charitable foundation of his own. Think about that for a moment…

As prosperity grows, so grow the opportunities for individuals to specialize.

Indeed, think about how golf has evolved thanks to the unequal. Arnold Palmer’s future father-in-law scoffed at the very notion of his daughter marrying a lowly golf professional, but thanks to unequal talents like Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tom Watson, golf became an increasingly lucrative career. Then Woods came along. And with tournament purses surging due to Woods’s popularity, caddies previously known for their ability to consume mass quantities of alcohol morphed into well-compensated, well-regarded, and rather sober strategists

As prosperity grows, so grow the opportunities for individuals to specialize.  As my new book The End of Work points out in greater detail, tennis and golf (to list two sports among many) lovers have been the certain beneficiaries of the rising prosperity created by the vital few. In Andre Agassi’s case, his popularity beyond the perhaps more insular world of tennis had a very real impact on prize money such that Agassi was eventually flying a racquet-stringing expert around the world with him. As the retired tennis great saw it, a well-strung racquet was worth “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Bringing it back to golf, Woods’s popularity plainly impacted the size of tournament purses such that caddies were more and more valuable to golfers. What was previously the work of the street-smart with silly names became a career. So did golf instruction. In his prime, legendary teacher Harvey Penick (most famously the author of Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book) made a living “helping average golfers,” according to golf teacher Hank Haney.

What makes Woods unequal is what frees up lovers of golf to turn what used to be a post-retirement hobby into a lifelong career.

But as Haney went on to point out in his own memoir, golf’s increasingly lucrative nature meant that teachers of weekend players and retirees were more and more being hired by professionals to lift their games. Haney himself taught Woods, and also turned Mark O’Meara into a major winner. David Leadbetter turned Nick Faldo into a Grand Slam-winning machine. Nowadays it’s the norm for well-paid professionals to employ top-notch caddies and instructors. Such is the genius of prosperity. Created by the few, it lifts countless others up.

Tiger Woods is back as a contender in Grand Slam golf tournaments. Because he is, his already sky-high income is set to soar. Those in the growing golf industry are doubtless thrilled. What makes Woods unequal is what frees up lovers of golf to turn what used to be a post-retirement hobby into a lifelong career.

Reprinted from RealClearMarkets.

  • John Tamny is Director of the Center for Economic Freedom at FreedomWorks, a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research & Trading, and editor of RealClearMarkets.