Woods, Nicklaus, the Globalization of Sports

The world is most passionate about futbol, the Canucks are hockey-crazed, and in the U.S. we’ve always staked our claim to baseball, basketball, and football. Then global interdependence accelerated and now we get spanked in international baseball competitions, the bigs are a multinational polyglot, our days of bball dominance are a thing of the past, and only football remains predominantly national in orientation.

One especially poignant event took place in 2000 that illustrates the globalization of professional sports. The Dallas Mavericks had five international players on the court at the same time—Obinna Ekezie (Nigeria); Eduardo Najera (Mexico); Steve Nash (Canaduh), Dirk Nowitzki (Germany); and Zhizhi Wang (China). If you need more evidence, check out an LPGA leaderboard.

Speaking of golf, TW is known around the world as a result of his amazing on course success, endless advertising, and sexcapades. Some in the media have reported that his Swedish wife is seeking $750 million (which will only worsen our balance of trade). Until recently, I would have bet 100% of my retirement assets that TW would break Jack’s major championship record. TW sits at 14, JN has 18. Now, I’d only bet 70%.

To win a major championship, I assume the following. You have to be play really well for four consecutive rounds. To do that, you must have your swing grooved going in, be mentally focused, and injury free (TW’s US Open win at Torrey was a freakish anomaly). Pre-sexcapade-escalade-firehydrant, TW usually had his swing grooved going into majors, was always off the charts focused, and usually healthy (pre-knee problem).

Times have changed. Hard to focus on the eight footer for par with 18″ of break when you’re wondering if your wife has discovered your most recent sexts. Then there’s the neck injury. Then there’s the swing coach that decided he wanted a divorce too.

All of those things can be fixed over time. After the divorce he’ll sleep around worry-free, his neck will probably return to normal, and eventually he’ll probably get someone to take seven figures to help with his swing.

Tiger is 34 years old and Watson almost won the British last year at 59. Apart from Gary Player, has there ever been a golfer more dedicated to fitness than TW? So let’s say his window is between 15 and 25 years. All he’d have to do to pass Jack is win one major every 3 to 5 years. Assuming he plays every major every year that’s winning one of twelve or twenty championships.

But globalization is the variable that gives me pause. As of May 31st, 2010, thirty-three of the top fifty golfers in the world are international players—66% (I did that in my head). Several of the top international players are considerably younger than Tiger, just as long, and nearly as talented—McIlroy, Kaymer, Schwartzel, Villegas, Ishikawa, Davies. As a result of the globalization of golf, Tiger faces increasingly deep fields, much more so than Nicklaus did. I wish I had a research assistant to dig into the comparable world ranking figures for Nicklaus when he was in his mid-30’s. I’m guessing the number of international players in the top 50, and the non-Gary Player major championship winners, paled by comparison.

There’s also anecdotal evidence that the next generation of golfers is going to be better than the current one. Jordan Spieth, a 16 year old, finished 16th in a PGA tour event two weeks ago. Last week he finished tied for 8th in a junior golf tournament, 9 strokes behind Anthony Paolucci (66-69-69).

Then there’s a non-globalization, psychological factor. Over the last ten years, nearly everyone nearly always has been intimidated by Tiger, wilting under the pressure of playing in his shadow. Now, not as much. Can he get back to the same level of physical and mental dominance? Possibly.

And that’s why I’m only putting 70% of my retirement assets on Tiger winning five or more majors.