On Monday evening, Rafael Nadal capped off a US Open (tennis) Round of 16 match win over Marin Cilic with some theatrics. And though Nadal didn't need any extra inspiration to continue his assault on tennis' record books, during his post-match interview, he acknowledged the presence of one of his sporting heroes in the crowd: Tiger Woods.
In the wake of a season where Woods made us remember what it felt like to witness his powers on the golf course, we also got a reminder of how far beyond golf his aura extends: even to a private box in a tennis stadium in Queens. Dressed in Fun-21st-Century-Dad duds - quarter-zip pullover, comfy jeans, Oakland Raiders cap alternating between forward and reverse orientation, kids in tow and girlfriend Erica Herman at his side - this golfer managed to preside over America's greatest tennis competition.
That Nadal defaults to Woods - not Rod Laver, Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi - as his sports hero is the latest step in the evolution in Woods' place in the sports firmament: from that of prime-career dominant competitor to something more like a pater familias of contemporary great individual athletes (Woods and current all-time tennis major champion Roger Federer are friendly as well). That is a nice marketing advantage for a sport that still sees itself as second-tier, especially as it subordinates itself to football in the crafting of its professional schedule. If golf's directorate ever decides to try and put the game on equal footing with football, baseball and basketball, it will continue to have something those other sports don't: a transcendent cultural icon to point to as proof of the game's appeal beyond the traditional demographics.