Does a Tiger-less golf have the teeth to compete now?
An opinion that’s done more rounds than Jack Nicklaus and one that is undoubtedly shared by tournament heads, TV executives, sponsors and golf fans the world over.
Since a 21-year-old golfing cub decimated the rest of the field at the 1997 Masters, there can be no disputing the impact Eldrick “Tiger” Woods has had upon the game.
His 78 PGA Tour wins place him second on the all-time win list, his 14 Major victories leave him tantalisingly close to overhauling Nicklaus’ magic marker of 18 while his marketable brand (pre and post personal indiscretions) has turned the sport’s greenest fairways golden.
The game of golf is synonymous with the name Tiger Woods. As synonymous as my tee-shots are with finding woods.
Can one sport become overly reliant though on one competitor’s talent/genius/brand?
Snooker faces a similar quandary at the moment with the mercurial Ronnie O’Sullivan. Great champions have gone before; Hendry, Davis, Higgins. As with golf; Nicklaus, Palmer, Player. And great champions will surely take up the baton, cue or club in years to come.
Look at the 2013 World Snooker Championship Final though. O’Sullivan vs Barry Hawkins. Would millions have tuned in to watch Hawkins take on Judd Trump? Or was it the chance to see something that little bit special that had people reaching for their remotes.
It may be impossible to quantify the number of youngsters who have picked up a putter because of Woods or the amount of non-golfers his name alone has enticed to a nearby driving range. I was lucky enough to fall in love with golf during an era when the likes of Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and the great Seve Ballesteros were all plying their trade. Even now though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see Woods’ name near the top of a final-day leaderboard.
When injury put paid to the remainder of his 2008 season and off the green antics saw him take a five-month break from the game at the start of 2010, TV ratings and course attendances dropped quicker than his ranking. Even after the highly-anticipated comeback, his poor form resulted in numbers staying low. The networks televise a ridiculously high percentage of his shots (wherever he is on that leaderboard) and when he’s not in contention going into that final day, the viewers are simply not there.
Two weeks ago when the recently re-crowned world number one was majestically playing his way to victory at the Players’ Championship, American news outlets were reporting record attendances (173,946 people flocked to Sawgrass, a single-week record since accurate crowd counts began in 2007) as well as a spike in TV ratings (up 68% from 2012 - the highest final-round rating for a Players since 2001, which Woods won).
Neal Pilson, the head of a sports TV consulting company and former president of CBS Sports, said: “When Tiger Woods enters a tournament and when he is in contention in the final round, we see a 30 to 50% increase over what is the ‘normal’ rating.”
The Tiger-effect has seen sponsorship deals rocket (Nike was hardly a major force in the golfing world before they put all $40m. worth of eggs in one basket way back in 1996) and prize money reach exorbiant levels (Greg Norman became the first player to hit career winnings of $10m in a career in 1996. Just four years later, Woods pocketed a cool $9.2m in just one year).
The Tour of course will argue that golf has never been in better shape, whether Woods is there or not. Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan are all perfect examples of golf’s ever-deepening talent pool. This new breed is undeniably talented and undoubtedly equipped to make golf as competitive as it’s ever been, with the help of Donald, Rose, Stricker et al. of course. But will any of them ever match what Woods has achieved not just on the course, but off it?
A few weeks ago I asked my mum to name a golfer. Tiger Woods came the swift response. My mum knows about as much about golf as she does about heavy rock. Yet she wouldn’t be able to tell me that Ozzy Osbourne was the frontman of Black Sabbath.
Does golf need Tiger Woods? It existed years before Woods and it will continue to long after Tiger beds down in his retirement den. Whether or not it will still hold as much of the world’s attention is another matter.
One thing is for certain though. If Woods is striding purposefully down the 18th on the final day of the US Open next week, about to get his hunt for Nicklaus’ Major record back on track, the world will be watching.