Originally created 12/26/96

Woods came from nowhere to be SI Sportsman of Year



Overhyped? As recently as two years ago, the kid wasn't even known in the remote corners of his own game. This is how Masters champion Sandy Lyle responded the first time someone asked his opinion about Tiger Woods:

"I don't know," Lyle said. "I've never played there."

There is no longer any chance of confusing golf's latest, greatest prodigy with one of its courses. Nike's myth-making machinery has taken care of that. But in the bargain it has renewed debate about which is the more impressive - Tiger's accomplishments or the hype that has surrounded them.

The give-and-take reached its most fevered pitch yet only last week when Woods was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. The award might not be as prestigious as it once was, but there was nothing lackluster about the competition Woods whipped up on.

There was Michael Jordan capping the most compelling comeback in sports with yet another NBA championship. There was Michael Johnson delivering the unprecedented double - Olympic gold in the men's 200 and 400 meters - and running an otherworldly 19.32 seconds.

Indeed, the magazine's electors also considered the entire U.S. women's delegation to the Atlanta Olympics, tennis player Steffi Graf, New York Yankee manager Joe Torre and boxer Evander Holyfield before settling on Woods.

The closest thing to a justification the magazine offered was to call Woods "the only one among the candidates who changed the face of a sport, perhaps more rapidly than any other athlete ever had."

As noted above, the award doesn't carry the weight it once did. But considering the howls that Woods' selection generated, you would have thought he stole it.

On the same day the U.S. Olympic Committee picked Johnson as its top male athlete for the second year in a row, the runner complained that "in this society, we a lot of times equate sports greatness with how much money you make." That attack of high-mindedness occurred only after Johnson wore gold Nike track shoes and appeared in as many commercials as would have him.

Winning the SI title won't make Woods' much more money, but losing it definitely cost Johnson a shot at a few more bucks. So at least he had a reason to feel slighted. But people with considerably less standing have complained loudly that a) Tiger's selection was the result of a conspiracy between the magazine and Nike; or b) that since golf isn't a "real" sport, a golfer cannot be a Sportsman of the Year.

Conspiracy theories are understandable, all the moreso when a corporation as cunning as Nike is involved. In round one of the ad campaign the company trotted out on Tiger's behalf, the bit about courses he wasn't allowed to play because of the color of his skin packed a wallop. It also played fast and loose with the truth. But it's a long way from there to rigging an election.

The golf-is-not-a-sport argument is even sillier. In 1993, Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula was SI's selection. The only running he ever did was back and forth to the tunnel. Twenty years earlier, the magazine chose race car driver Jackie Stewart. Four years after him, jockey Steve Cauthen won for his Triple Crown ride aboard Affirmed.

Indeed, if anybody had reason to invoke this kind of argument, it was Cigar, the racehorse who strung together an unbeaten streak across two continents and four months. But there wasn't a word of complaint from him - or anyone else in his camp for that matter.

For all the other things the magazine relied on to validate the choice, its case rested on how much buzz each of the finalists created. Jordan was the talk of the sports world through most of the winter and into early summer. Johnson held sway for the two weeks in Atlanta. Both were eclipsed soon enough by Woods, who grabbed the stage with Jordan's flair for the dramatic, held it longer than Johnson and displayed a better sense of timing than either.

In short order, Tiger won two tournaments. But more to the point, through both the playing and the selling, he was able to create and then sustain an interest in himself and his sport that reached well beyond the usual audience.

But like with everything else Woods has accomplished so far, what will validate this title, finally, will be how many more times he wins it.