“His future seemed limitless. En route to their home in Fort Worth, Texas, they were on a narrow highway when a Greyhound bus coming from the other direction tried to pass a truck.” “[Ben] Hogan, knowing the bus was about to strike his car head-on, threw his body over his wife’s in the passenger seat to protect her.” Those are the words of regular Wall Street Journal op-ed contributor, Bob Greene. He was writing about the awful accident that didn’t kill Hogan, but likely should have. Very certainly it would have killed his wife if not for Hogan’s quick thinking.
The accident happened in 1949. The speculation here is that it wouldn’t be an accident today. Cars are so much better engineered, and so are buses. Arguably there are fewer buses on narrow highways because so many Americans have cars. Thanks to the mass production of much-safer cars by those who became financially unequal as a consequence, the act of driving isn’t nearly as perilous as it once was.
The unequal elevate us. Always. Their achievements signal better living standards for us all, better safety, better health, and greater enjoyment of the world around us.
This is worth keeping in mind as arguably the most unequal golfer ever, Tiger Woods, is hospitalized. While Jack Nicklaus can claim more major tournament wins, he dominated a different game. Woods thoroughly dominated a much more competitive game made much more competitive by him. And in elevating all associated with the sport, he made winning the major victories that players are judged by exponentially more consequential. The unequal once again elevate us.
To see why, consider professional golf before Woods. As the New York Times’ Bill Pennington put it last week, “Roughly 25 years ago, more PGA Tour players probably smoked than worked out during an event.”
Pennington asked “what changed,” and the change was Woods. He was “a workout freak" who won The Masters, professional golf’s most prestigious achievement, a year after turning professional in 1996. Woods’s remarkable, dominant success quickly forced everyone in the game of golf to shape up, or move on.
Indeed, as Pennington notes, before Woods “golfers back then were a hodgepodge of shapes, some with bellies that bulged over gaudy white belts.” Notable here is that “There is a different look on the tour these days, and a short walk from the fitness trailers to the practice range would prove it.”
Pennington’s point is that Woods’s dominance improved everyone around him. It would no longer suffice to be tubby with a Merit dangling from your mouth. To play professional golf in the new game Woods created would require discipline when it came to vices, and it would require extraordinary conditioning. Woods’s arrival on the tour made other golfers much more physically healthy, and the game itself much healthier.
The players with “trim, athletic builds – and flat stomachs" also have swing coaches, putting coaches, psychiatrists, personal trainers, personal chefs, and all manner of other specialized individuals in their employ. They pay these specialists handsome sums. How do they do this? Look to Woods again.
Pennington reports that the prize money for a typical PGA event is $10.5 million, “or around five times what PGA Tour Tournaments paid before Woods turned pro.” It’s a reminder that professional golfers have earned and earn more losing to Woods than they do winning without him. Same with the caddies. Golf specialists themselves who guide their pros with math and measurement, they too are a consequence of unequal people like Woods.
Think about it. Caddies in the pre-Woods era were colorful people with colorful names. They carried bags, and brought their instinctual qualities to the professionals they carried for. But with prize money having skyrocketed thanks to fan and sponsor interest related to Woods, it’s no longer sufficient for the corpulent and creatively-nicknamed to guide their charges with instinct. Caddies are increasingly experts, they’re increasingly very good golfers themselves, and they map out courses with numerate precision ahead of tournaments. They earn their 10 percent of rising prize packages precisely because their specialized ways help golfers shave crucial shots off of each round.
About this specialization, think Woods. One man brought professional golf to the masses, and sponsors followed. With money much more evident, many, many more people were able to make a career out of a game; out of a game that all-too-many refused to even view as sport before Woods.
As is well-known now, Woods is hospitalized with numerous broken bones, including a shattered ankle. He plainly needs golf, because the sport animates him presumably like nothing else. But golf plainly needs Woods even more. When he’s playing, the sport prospers on a level that it doesn’t, or hasn’t, when he’s not playing.
The problem was a car accident. Who knows why Woods crashed, but just as unequal people like Woods elevate all around them, that which has Woods hospitalized speaks to how crucial unequal economic achievements will be to future greats.
Indeed, driverless cars are by all accounts not too far off. Soon enough they’ll be commonplace, and those who make them commonplace will be worth billions. Maybe trillions. When they do we will look back on Woods’s accident in 2021, Ben Hogan’s in 1949, and say neither would have been hurt driving in, say, 2031.
Driverless cars will assuredly save lives, and careers. We attack the unequal at our peril. Ask Tiger Woods. Ask his fellow Tour players.