The European Tour player was warming up on the driving range when Woods took the spot next to him at Emirates Golf Club. After some time passed — and perhaps after summoning up the courage — Armitage introduced himself, then ended up getting Woods to autograph a few times as well as stand for a photo. It was one of a growing number of exchanges with players who can be moved to act giddy in his presence.
“He’s the reason I started playing golf,” Armitage said.
For years, Woods wondered why other golfers did not seek his counsel. Now they do, and frequently. And you get the feeling there could be a long line at his locker or on the driving range for such acumen.
In a sport that hoped and tried to build momentum off of Woods’ initial success 20 years ago when he won the Masters — in participation, popularity and diversity — that wisdom might end up being his most enduring and effective impact.
“There’s nobody who had more influence in my golf game than Tiger,” said 23-year-old Jordan Spieth, whose nine PGA Tour victories include two majors. “Just the dominance, the way that he was able to bring it in the majors. Really, he brought it in every tournament. Just kind of the way that he was able to kind of get into contention and be in contention and be at that highest kind of mental part of the game week-in and week-out and major-in and major-out.”
That first major win — a 12-shot victory at age 21 on the greens of Augusta National — started a string of success that stirred many to take up the sport, only to see them leave it because of myriad factors that could have to do with cost, time and difficulty.
According to the National Golf Foundation, there were roughly 24 million golfers in the United States the year prior to Woods’ victory; that number jumped to 26 million in 1997 and held steady until 2000 when it increased to 28 million and steadily grew each year through 2003 to 31 million golfers. Those numbers began to trail off, however, in the mid-to-late 2000s. The NGF reported 24.1 million golfers in the United States in 2015, down from 24.7 million in 2014 and 30 million. But 2.2 million golfers age 6 and older played for the first time in 2015, which was the most since 2002. Nearly as many or more players leave the game each year as take it up, and the NGF reports that 90 percent who left the game were never regular players.
“People have a hard time staying off their phones for five minutes,” Woods said. “How do we keep them interested in golf? How do you keep it fun?”
Woods, who got his start on a Navy course his father had access to in Southern California because of his military background, is well aware of the other perils faced by any aspiring golfer, especially those without the economic means.
“The difference today is the advent of the golf cart, and obviously the prices of clubs and equipment in general have skyrocketed,” Woods said. “Greens fees going through the roof, $500 and north at some golf courses. So it’s hard to get inner-city youth interested in a sport like golf. It’s just so expensive.
“Then sustainability is even harder. But the advent of the golf cart is what changed things. Golf isn’t introduced during the summer when you could be [caddying] and swinging a club here and there. They’re out playing hoops and other sports.”
Not even Woods could alter that. He did spark an era of tremendous television ratings on tournament broadcasts as well increased purses and marketing opportunities. Even today, as Woods struggles to come back from injuries and his game has left him ranked outside of the top 700 in the world, he still draws enormous crowds and interest. His peers stop to watch him hit balls on the range, and U.S. Ryder Cup team members were stoked to have him on board last year as an assistant captain.
But that popularity has also meant very little in terms of drawing more minority players at the pro level.
In 1976, the year after Woods was born, there were 12 African-American golfers on the PGA Tour; today, Woods is joined only by Harold Varner III, who earned his PGA Tour card for the 2015-16 season and last year won his first professional tournament in Australia.
“People have a hard time staying off their phones for five minutes. How do we keep them interested in golf? How do you keep it fun?”
Varner, 26, is now in his second season on the PGA Tour, introduced to the game by his father, Harold Jr. a car salesman from North Carolina who would drop his son off at a municipal course in Gastonia and then pick him up after work. Varner said if he had not stopped growing at 5-foot-7, he might have been more interested in basketball than golf.
“My parents didn’t have the funds. You deal with it,” he said. “Some things you just can’t do, and I’m fine with it. I don’t want to look at it like, “Oh, I wish I had this or I wish I had that.’ If I would’ve had that I might not have made it. But those experiences of not being able to do certain things, those are fine with me. It’s OK.”
And that is a big part of golf’s issues with developing players. No matter your ethnicity, it is an expensive game, whether it is equipment or greens fees. Not only do you need the proper place to play and practice, but instruction is important, too. And that does not come cheap.
Woods has often said that “I owe my career” to the black pioneers whose sacrifices opened the door for him. He has cited Lee Elder — the first black golfer to compete in the Masters in 1975 — and Charlie Sifford among the many who helped pave a path without the discriminatory obstacles they faced. Woods said his father Earl’s generation was most affected by his Masters victory since they had a keener understanding of the social ramifications after living through a more difficult time.
Another impact point from Tiger was his global reach. He created enthusiasm in Asia, South America, Australia, South Africa and Europe.
“Tiger came to golf with a level of energy, excitement and enthusiasm, and he increased the level of interest all across the board,” said Joe Louis Barrow Jr., who is retiring this year as CEO of The First Tee, a youth development organization that was established the year Woods won his first Masters 20 years ago.
Barrow, whose father was former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, took over the organization in 2000 when just over 100 facilities meant to provide affordable access to golf were in operation. It has grown to more than 1,000 golf courses, 8,000 schools and over 800 after-school locations.
Woods began his own foundation at the urging of his father, almost immediately upon turning pro in 1996. Soon he started holding clinics around the country, often in conjunction with tournaments. Huge numbers of kids from all backgrounds would show up.
But it was on his drive from St. Louis to Florida in the aftermath of 9/11 that Woods realized he wanted to do something more. Due to all air traffic being grounded, Woods made the drive from the World Golf Championship event — by himself — to his Florida home in Orlando. Along the way, he thought about his foundation and what might happen should he not be around.
“That long drive gave me time to think about doing more in the world, especially for young people,” Woods wrote in his recently released book, “The 1997 Masters: My Story.” “I spoke to Pop on the way home, and told him I wanted to make a change to the foundation, but needed a couple of weeks to think things through. Pop reminded me that when I was growing up, family, education and sports were important, but in that order. I knew then I wanted the Tiger Woods Foundation to focus on education, and not golf.”
What evolved was a learning center — now called the TGR Learning Lab — that opened in February 2006 with former President Bill Clinton in attendance near the foundation’s home in Anaheim, California; there are now seven such labs across the country. Woods’ goal was to educate young people and equip them with “the mindset” to persevere.
Three golf tournaments — the Genesis Open, the Quicken Loans National and the Hero World Challenge — benefit the foundation. He also has two other fundraisers known as Tiger Jam and the Tiger Woods Invitational.
All of this is to promote education programs that have little to do with increasing golf participation. And yet, Woods is often cited as the person upon whom minority participation in golf hinges.
“For that to be the ultimate standard in measuring Tiger’s success, that’s the absolute, unequivocal wrong standard,” Barrow said. “Those who say that are not giving Tiger’s impact just due.
“He is such a recognizable athlete,” Barrow said. “You can’t motivate people to make behavioral changes or participate if they have no awareness. Tiger increased the overall awareness.”
And helped other endeavors. The American Junior Golf Association had been around for more than a decade before Woods’ victory. In fact, Woods was a participant in the program — basically a golf tour for junior golfers.
“When you look back on Tiger coming onto the scene, he did create a tremendous wave of interest in golf,” said Stephen Hamblin, the executive director of the American Junior Golf Association — which stages events around the country. … [But] I don’t think [the industry was] ready for what Tiger brought to the game. …
“He made golf cool. He made it athletic. He made it stylish. When I say the industry wasn’t ready, look at what it now has in place — The First Tee; USGA/LPGA Girls Club; Drive, Chip & Putt; PGA Junior League. Our program has now been around for close to 40 years. Back then we had only a few dozen tournaments in place. Now I’ve got 120, with members from different countries. It has changed.”
And some of that can be attributed to Woods. Since his groundbreaking victory 20 years ago, Woods has inspired golfers. And whenever he is back to playing, he is likely to see it, up close and in person. Again.