One thing all the political consultants interviewed for this article agreed upon is that name recognition and highfavorability ratings alone guarantee nothing in politics. Arnold Schwarzenegger's pole vault into the California governor's mansion last year may suggest the opposite, but the circumstances of that race were highly unusual. A midterm petition campaign forced a recall vote for the sitting Democratic governor, Gray Davis, and left little time for campaigning. That put a premium on brand-name celebrity. With no other standout contender in the field, Schwarzenegger took advantage of his personal wealth and bigger-than-life personality to easily terminate the competition.
And it's important to note that Schwarzenegger was not exactly the political neophyte many people assumed. He had attended four Republican conventions, served as chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports from 1990 to 1993, and long identified himself publicly with two unimpeachable causes for children (the Special Olympics and a foundation that sponsored after-school activities in inner cities). In addition, over the years, he had steadily contributed to Republican campaigns. Thus, when the unexpected opportunity to run for governor presented itself, Schwarzenegger had both the immediate backing of his political party and a thin but legitimate political record to run on. To date, Tiger Woods has neither.
A more sobering precedent for Woods to ponder might be Roger Staubach's flirtation with a run for the U.S. Senate in Texas in 1986. Within the state, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback had Tiger-like popularity: 93 percent name recognition and a twelve-to-one favorability rating. Moreover, his personal history was a political strategist's dream. After winning the Heisman Trophy at the Naval Academy, he completed his full four-year commitment to the military (including a year in Vietnam) before turning to pro ball and leading the Cowboys to two Super Bowl victories. After retiring in 1979, he started a successful real estate business in Dallas, the heart of Texas Republicanism. A slam dunk, surely. But according to Lance Tarrance, the Republican political consultant who did Staubach's polling, all that notoriety gained him surprisingly little traction. "Against any of the known Democrats mentioned as possible challengers, Staubach polled only so-so," Tarrance said. "Even with a high level of celebrity, the voting public needs to see some experience." When Staubach came face-to-face with the political realities of a campaign—the loss of privacy, the endless fund-raising, the general nastiness and all-but-guaranteed personal attacks against him—he opted out.
For Tiger to have any chance of becoming president some day, he would need to lay the groundwork years in advance. "Success in American politics doesn't happen overnight," said Tarrance. "There's no way to just drop in from outer space and become president or senator. A lot goes into it. A lot of tedium. You have to pay your dues."
The first step would be for Woods to become increasingly public in his support for a few strategically chosen causes. On this front, Woods is off to a promising start with his foundation. Each year Woods hosts a clinic (and his foundation hosts another half dozen) designed less to teach the golf swing than to inspire kids to live up to their potential. He seeded the foundation with $500,000 of his own money and has raised millions more through his yearly Tiger Jam concert in Las Vegas, his Target World Challenge every December and other events. With an endowment in 2002 of $21 million, Tiger's foundation is far from the big leagues. (By comparison, more than eighty U.S. foundations have endowments greater than $500 million.) But with Tiger's continuing energy behind it, it could easily be a significant force by the time he would start winding down his golf career and thinking about running for public office— say, in twenty to twenty-five years. Also by that time, there would be thousands of former beneficiaries, all of voting age, running around the country singing Tiger's praises.
The second step for Woods would be to develop a coherent personal political philosophy. One of the great things Tiger has going for him, according to a number of strategists, is that politically he is a blank slate. Experienced since childhood at parrying questions from the media, Woods has by now developed a sixth sense for avoiding even innocent remarks that could get him into trouble. This can be frustrating for journalists and fans (his postround interviews are often bravura performances in the art of saying nothing), but this talent has successfully kept the public from getting a peek at his cards.
Sooner or later, however, Woods will have to begin to stand for something besides excellence on the golf course. "At the moment, Tiger is an enigma," observed Walter Isaacson, the former head of both Time magazine and CNN and now president of the Aspen Institute, a Washington, D.C.Ðbased think tank. "Ultimately he will have to let people know what's behind his mysterious facade by engaging more actively in the civic, social and political issues of the day." This may not be something Tiger ever chooses to do, of course, but if he does he would be wise to educate himself first. "He should sit down with Arnold Schwarzenegger," advised Kemp. "He should sit down with [national security adviser] Condoleeza Rice and study up and begin to articulate a vision of what America should look like in the twenty-first century."
Kemp himself did something similar, even before his playing career with the Buffalo Bills was finished. Inspired by John F. Kennedy's call for tax cuts in 1962, Kemp started reading economic text books and essentially apprenticed himself to a couple of leading supply-side economists. By the time he first ran for Congress, successfully, in 1970, he could hold his own in any serious political discussion and was well on his way to shedding the dumb-jock image that initially plagued him. (Later, under the first President Bush, Kemp served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.) Another celebrity-cum-politician, Ronald Reagan, was tutored by an entire team of Republican PartyÐsupplied political advisers and subject-area experts in the years leading up to his first political campaign, for governor of California in 1966. He won handily.
Woods certainly has the means to retain a political consultant, starting immediately if he chooses, and the clout to "sit down" with pretty much anyone he thinks might be helpful. But developing an effective political philosophy— a "vision," as Kemp calls it—would require an intensity of purpose that Woods so far has shown only on the golf course. Without a thought-through and compelling set of personal convictions, any Woods campaign would run the risk of faltering. Richard Stengel, a former senior adviser and speechwriter for Bill Bradley and now head of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, points to Ted Kennedy's 1980 campaign for president as a cautionary example. "In one of the primary debates, someone asked Kennedy why he wanted to be president. It was a simple question, but he couldn't come up with a convincing response, and his campaign never recovered," Stengel observed. "If Tiger is going to be successful in politics, he'll need to figure out his own good answer to that question."
Assuming he can, many of the personal qualities that have driven Woods to extraordinary success in golf would prove highly useful in politics: his concentration, discipline, work ethic and mania for being prepared. "When sports people get involved with politics, they tend to be much more focused and on-task than other candidates, and they usually don't quit until the job is done," said Frank Luntz, an MSNBC commentator who has consulted for Republican politicians including Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. In particular, Luntz suggests, the detail-oriented nature of golf might prepare Woods for a difficult presidential task such as hashing out a budget. "Don't laugh, but I see a link between the skill Tiger has of focusing on each shot to make it as successful as possible, even though it's just one shot in a round of seventy-two or so, and the focus he would need to bring to bear on each line item in a budget of literally thousands of line items. Golf is a game of inches, and so is fighting a budget deficit." Another specific link between golf and politics is the almost superhuman energy required by a campaign. Endless travel, predawn wake-up calls, exhausting days on one's feet, periods of intense focus followed by unscripted smileyface interactions with supporters and the media—these are all aspects of life on the PGA Tour that Woods is familiar with.