If you’re about 30 years old or older and reading this, you’ve had the opportunity to see some pretty cool stuff in your lifetime. The advent of the internet. Halley’s Comet in 1986. The greatest baseball player of the last 50 years in Albert Pujols. A St. Louis NFL team winning the Super Bowl. And, as we’re learning again this week, the absolute zenith of golf as a spectator sport.
When Tiger Woods roared onto the scene with his dominant win at the 1997 Masters, he set off an explosion previously unseen in golf. While Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus had been stars in the sport, Tiger was a rock star. What previously had been a Caucasian dominated country club sport became cool to watch, and cool to play. Stores couldn’t keep equipment on shelves, and the number of courses built went through the roof.
The most watched Masters ever was Tiger’s third win, in 2001. His 2009 win at Bay Hill, certainly not a major, drew higher TV ratings than the 2008 British Open and PGA Championship, which were played after Woods’ knee surgery that year. Woods’ Bay Hill win, in fact, at the time was the highest rated golf tournament since his dramatic U.S. Open victory on a bad leg.
The numbers go on and on. The highest rated Masters round ever was Tiger’s final round in 1997. Their second highest rated round was the final round of his 2001 win. The third highest was last year, when he came off his sex scandal and briefly took the lead on Sunday before falling back in the pack.
Woods won the first, third and fourth highest rated British Opens on ABC in 2000, 2005 and 2006.
The two highest rated U.S. Opens were Woods wins in 2000 and 2002. The highest rated PGA Championships were 2006, 2007 and tournaments Tiger was in contention down the stretch in, 2002 and 2009.
Those are remarkable numbers, and they are numbers I don’t think we’ll see on a consistent basis ever again. Why? Because I can’t imagine Tiger being so consistently dominant again. The preeminent golfer ever turned 35 in December. When you combine his personal issues, and the toll that has taken on his game, with his physical limitations, it would take a super-human endeavor to return to that greatness.
People just don’t win lots of major tournaments that late in life. And with that knowledge, keep in mind that Woods says he doesn’t practice as much because he wants to spend more time with his children. I know Tiger has access to better equipment and better nutrition and physical fitness knowledge and tools than anyone before him, but so do the kids he’s playing against.
The golf industry also must face the reality that many people that watched Tiger on Sundays simply aren’t going to forgive him. Many females I talk to won’t forgive him for cheating on his wife with all of those women. Those casual fans that helped generate those enormous TV ratings simply aren’t going to be on their couch on Sunday afternoon. They’ll be watching something else, or working in the yard, or going for a walk or a bike ride. It doesn’t matter how good he is, those people just aren’t going to come back to Tiger … and more important aren’t going to come back to golf.
Will we still see flashes of Tiger brilliance? Sure. He was in the hunt in three of the four major tournaments last season. Will we see consistent brilliance? No.
I’m not saying Woods won’t break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships. He has 14, and while I’d be somewhat surprised, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him pass Jack.
I do, however, feel fairly confident that Tiger will never be as dominant as he was from 1997-2009. If he breaks that record, it’ll take five years to get the five wins in major tournaments. He was the most dominant athlete in sports, and also the most popular. People watched golf, especially on Sunday, to see Woods win. And because he won’t be as dominant, not as many men will watch, either. Not as many sponsors will jump on golf’s bandwagon. Not as many advertisers will buy time because the ratings won’t be as good. Not as many people will be inclined to try golf as they did when Tiger was The Man.
Like Muhummad Ali in boxing and Jimmy Connors later in his career in tennis, Woods was must-see TV in an individual sport. And like those two, he carried the sport. When Ali and Connors retired, when their sports lost their most dazzling figures, the sport as a mainstream item went by the wayside.
Tiger may not retire soon, but he isn’t the same. And golf, which has been in decline on the senior and women’s tours for some time, will suffer the same fate. We were fortunate to see it. We saw the most dominant golfer ever, and we saw him take a sport to levels of popularity and prosperity it had never known before.
As Tiger has declined, the sport has, too. We saw the height of golf. And we should remember it fondly.