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Tiger Woods on course to become sports first billionaire

Tiger Woods had just won his first pro tournament in 1996 when he walked into the press room at the Las Vegas Invitational and glanced at a story a reporter was writing.

"Like it?" the writer asked.

"I like this,'' Woods replied, pointing to a mention of the $297,000 winner's check.

Woods had been a pro for only about a month and he already was rich, thanks to deals with Nike and Titleist that would pay him $60 million for five years. But to a 20-year-old who couldn't even legally drink, the winner's check was what really mattered.

"That other stuff was paper money,'' his father, Earl Woods, said.

Four years later, Woods has come to understand that paper money can add up. He's the biggest moneymaker in sports.

At 24, he dominates and transcends the sport of golf. Companies throw money at him to get him to endorse their products, while tournament directors and TV executives pray for him to play in their tournaments.

America is in love with Tiger Woods and, as evidenced by the ratings for his suspenseless 15-stroke victory in the U.S. Open, this affair is in no danger of waning.

"He's Elvis. We've found Elvis and he looks like Tiger Woods,'' said Rick Burton, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Centre at the University of Oregon.

Not quite, but Woods certainly has staked his place in line to surpass Michael Jordan as America's most recognised -- and well-paid -- sports hero. Fans who wouldn't know Davis Love III from Fred Funk know Tiger Woods, and his reach already has spread far from the sport of golf itself.

The money is coming in so fast that he's on his way to becoming sport's first billion-dollar man.

"If anybody can, it's Tiger,'' his agent, Mark Steinberg, said.

Estimates vary -- and his handlers won't give specifics -- but Woods will easily earn tens of millions of dollars this year from a select group of deals topped by a contract with Nike. He's already won $5 million this year on the golf course, money he puts into a fund to build a house in Florida while his other millions are invested by his father.

Woods's agents are wrapping up the details on a new five-year Nike contract that published reports value at $100 million or more. He will also reportedly get a piece of the revenue from the new Nike golf ball that he began using shortly before the Open.

"He is the most remarkable athlete in the world right now and certainly deserves the comparison to Michael Jordan,'' Nike Golf president Bob Wood said.

Just how big Woods is becoming is hard to imagine. But everyone, it seems, wants to be a part of it.

The company that performed laser surgery to correct his vision is paying Woods $2 million a year just to use his name, and he owns far more lucrative deals with Buick, American Express, EA Sports, Rolex, and Wheaties.

"If Jordan isn't the first billion-dollar athlete, then Tiger will be the first,'' said Burton, whose institute analyses the sports marketing business. "This guy can play golf 45 or 50 years and, if you calculate it at $200 million a year, that's an unbelievable amount of money.''

The $200 million figure may be high, at least for the time being. But there is no question that Woods commands tremendous wealth from those seeking to align themselves with one of the world's most recognised athletes.

While Woods went out and dominated in the Open last week, Steinberg worked into the early hours of the morning tying up details on his new contract with Nike. The company's commercials helped cement his early fame after turning pro, and TV images of Woods bouncing balls off of a wedge and leading Buick owners in humorous be-like-Tiger lessons are aimed at trying to make the public identify with him.

"They're allowing people to come into his world a little,'' Steinberg said.

Also helping is that Woods competes in a sport anyone can play most of their lives, and, unlike Shaquille O'Neal, is of normal size.

"It's very tough to relate to a 7-footer,'' Steinberg said.

It's easy to relate to Tiger Woods though, and everything he touches seems to turn to gold. Look no further than the new Nike golf ball.

Introduced in February in a field dominated by Titleist and crowded with dozens of others, the ball languished with about a 1 percent share of the $820 million annual market.

Woods began testing it earlier this year at home in Florida. He played the ball for the first time in a tournament in Germany -- where he got a $1 million bonus simply for appearing -- and used it to win easily at the Memorial in late May.

Nike executives could barely control their excitement on the Open telecast, where the Nike swoosh always seemed to end up on just the right side for the cameras every time the ball was on the green.

"It was like winning the lottery,'' Nike's Wood said. "People are absolutely juiced around here. Everybody is talking about this guy, even the people in finance who don't even know about him.''

Sales of the ball picked up after last weekend, and Wood said the company was sending balls by air freight to meet demand. At golf retailer Edwin Watts, vice president Lincoln Cox said customers were calling to ask about the ball.

"He definitely raises the awareness,'' Cox said. "Up until this year the golf industry has been flat. Now it seems to be coming out of a down cycle.''

It's not just golf balls. Woods is selling golf on television, where ratings double and triple for tournaments he plays. When he tried for a record seventh straight win in the Buick Invitational in February, ratings topped that of the NBA All-Star game the same day.

NBC's coverage of his Open victory pulled in 19 percent more TV homes than the event did a year ago, when Payne Stewart won a dramatic Open on the final hole. NBC estimates 53 million people tuned in Saturday and Sunday, with the highest Sunday national rating for the tournament since 1981 -- an 8.1 with a 21 share.

Woods is the attraction, but the rest of golf is enjoying the attention. A new TV contract signed last year has nearly doubled purses on the PGA Tour to a total of $132 million this year, and tour officials already are looking toward bigger increases when the deal expires in 2002.

"We've had two athletes in my time -- Muhammad Ali and Jordan -- that draw fans from outside their sport,'' NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol said. "Every indicator we have says Tiger is the next one.''

The presence of Woods, who plays in 20 to 25 tournaments a year, can make or break an event. That was evident when more than 40,000 people braved traffic jams two miles long to crowd Torrey Pines golf course in San Diego for the Buick Invitational.

"The first question a tournament director gets from everyone is, 'Is Tiger playing your tournament?' '' said Charles Davis, who runs the National Car Rental Golf Classic at Walt Disney World Resorts. "Tournament directors are on pins and needles waiting for him.''

Woods is just as popular overseas, with his appearance in the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in Germany this year credited with more than doubling crowds in a country where few people play golf. He also endorses Asahi beer in golf-crazy Japan.

At home, the PGA Tour finds itself walking a fine line trying to promote its other players so fans don't stay home in droves and turn off the TV when Woods isn't playing that week.

"You can't avoid putting the emphasis on Tiger Woods, but it is 144 or 156 guys every week,'' said Henry Hughes, senior vice president and chief of operations for the PGA Tour. "Yet we're on a real upsurge, and he's clearly the leader in that.''

With Woods already having cemented his place in the game at such a young age, the question is whether he can keep it up over a sustained period of time.

He's done so much so fast and gotten so rich so quick that some believe his work ethic might slip.

Not likely, says Earl Woods, who said the money won't affect his son because he spends so little of it.

"That's one of the first things to know about Tiger -- he's tight. Very tight,'' Earl Woods said.

Steinberg said he, Woods, and Earl Woods will continue to screen endorsement offers to make sure they fit properly and avoid oversaturation. Woods has 11 sponsors, which use him to varying degrees.

Besides, Steinberg said, there is no hurry to make an immediate killing when the future is so bright.

"He's 24. That's the key to this,'' Steinberg said. "He's limitless. He's a transcendent athlete, finally being recognised as the greatest athlete on the planet, and he has anywhere from 20 to 40 years left.''


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