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The 2003 Hot List

HOT TOPIC BOOM OR BUST?
Was that Elvis returning to shake up the world in January?No, just Eldrick. When Eldrick "Tiger" Woods came back from off-season knee surgery, golf's TV ratings doubled. Each time the number-one athlete on earth plays, millions tune in and even stars in other sports take notice. In February, after he won the Buick Invitational, Woods took girlfriend Elin Nordegren to a Lakers game. With six seconds left in a tie game, Houston Rockets all-star Steve Francis ran off the court to congratulate Tiger.

"How weird was that?" Woods said.

It's only weird because it is new. After 600 years at the margins of sport, golf has finally moved to center stage. Having knocked hockey out of pro sports' big four, the game is gaining on NBA basketball. Since 1996, pro hoops' TV ratings have fallen 52 percent. NFL ratings are down. Baseball ratings are down. But golf's ratings are rising, defying every trend in mass-market sports. And golf is the only major sport that most fans actually play—a perfect prescription for long-term growth.

Still, we keep hearing that golf is in trouble. Participation is flat at about 26 million, which means that for every American who takes up the game, somebody quits. Club makers and course owners say their business is stagnant at best. The LPGA and Champions Tours are hurting; even the mighty PGA Tour has had to scramble for sponsors. Too many outsiders see the game as a bastion of privilege and prejudice, Augusta style. Even the pros' brilliance is supposed to imperil the game: The way Woods, Ernie Els and the rest have been bombing the ball, we'll soon need 800-yard par fives and greens that Stimp at twenty.

But golf is not in trouble. It is in transition.

Participation is flat for a simple reason: The economy shanked. The real surprise is that a time-consuming, expensive, damned difficult game has held its own in such bad times—a stretch so poor for business that industry bosses can sound like Chicken Little. "The industry is going backward," says Callaway president Ron Drapeau, who blames USGA limits on high-tech clubs for a "negative spiraling effect" that threatens golf's future. "The game may go the way of eight-track tapes." But for golfers, Drapeau's storm clouds have a graphite lining: Competition among equipment makers can spur what golf-biz analyst Casey Alexander calls "a market-share cage match" in which John Q. Publinks gets clubs and balls for less. There is certainly nothing eight-track about eBay, which moved $150 million in golf gear last year, a third of the giant e-tailer's sporting goods sales.

As for Augusta, the war between Martha Burk and Hootie Johnson will end when (not if) the club admits a token female. Then pessimists can go back to arguing about "the distance problem," which is not really a problem. It is a selling point. In an age of extreme sports, tomahawk dunks and tape-measure dingers, the 350-yard drive is golf's home run.

The game's progress may have been slowed by a lousy economy, but recessions end. This recession's end may trigger a golf boom that will last a century.

So it is time to stop pining for golf's golden age—an era of knickers, hickory shafts and perfect etiquette but also of racism, sexism, sand greens and weed-eaten fairways. It's time to enjoy the titanium age.

FAN FAVORITE PHIL MICKELSON
He cannot be called a great player until he wins a major. But Phil Mickelson is a great character, a gutsy, go-for-broke golfer who is also that rarest of jocks, an interesting man. Doting dad Phil skips tournaments to frolic with his daughters and attend his son's birth. Betting man Phil puts $20,000 on the Diamondbacks at 35-1 before the 2001 baseball season; when they win the World Series he collects $700,000. Before this year's Super Bowl he picked—of course—the underdog Buccaneers.

Players mock him by calling him "Genius," a label he invites by spouting off about quantum physics. Analysts call him stupid for taking crazy risks, but that's Phil—not perfect, but never boring. At this year's AT&T he shot an electrifying eighty: After he went out in forty-five on Sunday, his closing thirty-five included a backward bunker shot—from an impossible lie he hit the ball back over his head to the green, bringing roars from the crowd.

He burns to win the big one, to shake that major monkey off his back, but he won't play safe—won't turn into David Toms—to do it. And when he hits one crooked or lips out on Sunday in a major and you can hear his heart breaking, does he pull a Daly and run away?No, he stands there like a man—a modern media man—and tells us how much it hurts.

Won't it be fun when Phil wins his first major this year?

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