Barack Obama's Tiger Woods Moment

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 9 2009 6:07 PM

Barack Obama's Tiger Woods Moment

As of December 1996, Tiger Woods had yet to win a major tournament. The amateur golf legend had just turned pro a few months earlier, instantly snagging megabucks from Nike and winning a pair of low-wattage tournaments before the year was out. In those days, it was still unclear whether Woods would live up to the hype. Would the phenom burn out, or would he become the greatest golfer—nay, the greatest athlete—any of us had ever seen? Sports Illustrated didn't wait to find out. The magazine named Woods its 1996 Sportsman of the Year .

An award bestowed on a galvanizing figure who'd yet to realize his potential—sounds a lot like how some have characterized Barack Obama's winning the Nobel Peace Prize . While Oslo's Nobel committee and SI 's editorial team aren't usually mentioned in the same breath, the institutions played the same notes in their celebratory write-ups. The difference: Sports Illustrated went way more overboard with the wishful thinking.

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"Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity," says the golfer's father Earl Woods in Gary Smith's Sports Illustrated essay . "I don't know yet exactly what form this will take. But he is the Chosen One. He'll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power." SI 's Smith was also happy to play along. "[S]omething deeper than conventional stardom is at work here," he wrote, "something so spontaneous and subconscious that words have trouble going there."

While others have called Obama the Chosen One , the Nobel folks didn't get as carried away as Earl Woods. And the Nobel committee, unlike SI , didn't invoke its honoree's race. "Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future," the Nobel Committee explained . "His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population."

Sports Illustrated looked prophetic when, four months after handing Woods the Sportsman award, he crushed the field in the 1997 Masters . Woods still has some work to do to change the course of humanity—I mean, he wasn't even able to save General Motors . Still, the Nobel Committee would be thrilled if its pick turned out as well as SI 's. For Obama to live up to the Nobel, he'll need to score the political equivalent of a 12-stroke Masters victory.

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.