Tiger Woods holds the hammer in his sport like no other athlete in history. He's the reason pro golf has boomed. He knows it, the PGA Tour knows it, and he knows the Tour knows it.
Last week Woods got into the Tour's kitchen and took a few swings. In a story in Golf World he hinted at feeling unappreciated by the Tour. He questioned being required, like all Tour players, to appear in a minimum number of tournaments a year—currently 15—and complained about the hefty rights fees the Tour extracted for his prime-time exhibitions against David Duval and Sergio Garc�a. Most pointedly, he objected to the way the Tour allows companies with which he doesn't have endorsement deals to use his image, of which he and his agency, IMG, are highly protective. The unexpected broadside raised the specter of Tiger jumping ship, perhaps even starting his own tour.
Could he do it? Certainly, and it's that implied threat that gives him a supersized bargaining chip. Woods won $9.2 million this year on the Tour, but he could make much more as a free agent, playing for enormous appearance fees in foreign tournaments and exhibitions. He'd still be able to play in the four majors, which aren't run by the Tour, and as many as seven Tour events through sponsor exemptions.
Realistically, though, Woods will never drop out, because, riches aside, he wants to be the best player in the history of the game. For that, he needs the Tour.
Membership in the Tour gives his career historical context. It provides Woods with a yardstick against which to measure his game and offers fans the best gauge of how good he is, compared with his contemporaries and to those who came before him. A guy who's talked so much about breaking golf's greatest records can't jeopardize that.
So why the saber rattling? The take here is that Woods is demanding respect more than laying down a blueprint for revolution. Hypersensitive to issues of fairness and exploitation, he wants the right to approve the use of his likeness, and he deserves it. After each of his nine victories this year, Mercedes has run newspaper ads congratulating him on qualifying for January's Mercedes Championships. That's particularly galling for Buick, one of the 11 companies paying Woods a total of $54 million this year in endorsement fees. Tiger also is likely paying back the Tour for having denied his father, Earl, the use of a cart to follow his son during the exhibition with Duval.
Last week represented a fledgling but effective power play, and given his singular position in the sport, the Tour should respond by exploring a set of Tiger Rules that loosen the restrictions on where and when he can play and address his other concerns. As for Woods, he must be careful. His legacy is based not only on what he does with his clubs but also on how deftly he wields his hammer.