SOMEWHERE IN FLORIDA—I’m a little bit dizzy this morning since this is a four-stop trip to try to start piecing together the documentary based on ‘Caddy For Life.’ Yesterday was spent with Bruce’s parents, Jay and Natalie and his aunt, Joan Walsh. To say it was an emotional and draining afternoon (especially for them) is an understatement. This afternoon will be spent with Tom Watson and I expect that experience to be similar. Tomorrow morning is Marsha, Bruce’s wife.
After I got finished reading the stories this morning about President Obama’s state-of-the-union (I heard it in the car and was impressed but then everyone knows where my political leanings are) I picked up the sports page of USA Today and there was a cover story on all the financial issues facing The PGA Tour in what is now being called the, “Tiger Recession.”
Under normal circumstances today would have been Woods’ first official round of the year since he usually launched his season at Torrey Pines in San Diego, a place where he’s won seven times on tour—this tournament, which has a new corporate name with Buick gone (I like to think of it as The Andy Williams Invitational. I liked it when the celebs had their names on tournaments rather than corporations. Of course if the tour did that today there would probably be an ESPN talking head invitational) and that classic U.S. Open back in 2008.
If you think about it, that Open was Woods’ last truly great moment in golf. Yes, he came back and won six times last year and was voted player-of-the-year on the grounds that he was clearly the best player. I would have voted for Y.E. Yang only because if you gave Tiger a choice between his six wins and Yang’s two—one being The PGA Championship in which he caught Tiger to win on Sunday—there’s no doubt he’d have taken Yang’s year in a heartbeat.
Those six wins are all overshadowed now by the ongoing Tiger soap opera, “As The Eldrick Turns.” If you think ‘Lost,’ is keeping its outcome a secret, you’ve never met Woods or his band of not-so-merry-men. It is remarkable, if you think about it, that Woods has been able to basically drop out of sight for two months when every paparazzi on earth has been stalking him. Clearly his talents go well beyond golf. He can become The Invisible Man whenever he chooses to do so.
Until he comes back— like most people, I’m still guessing Doral or Bay Hill—there are going to be lots of stories like the one in USA Today this morning. Sales are down in San Diego without Tiger; TV ratings are down for tournaments he never played in anyway, apparently because people are depressed about Tiger’s absence. The Tour is worried about its future because there are currently 10 tournaments that do not have title sponsors for next year.
I have a message for all those people: lighten up.
Does the tour miss Woods? Of course it does. Has the NBA missed Michael Jordan, who last played a meaningful game in 1998? Does football miss Brett Favre? Oh wait, he hasn’t retired yet—although he may sometime in the next 15 minutes in an exclusive ESPN report that will be replaced an hour later by another exclusive report that he’s might play next season and, the network has learned from his agent, WILL watch The Pro Bowl on TV on Sunday.
Woods is, without question, the most transcendent star golf has ever had. Arnold Palmer is still the most important player in the history of the game because he brought TV and corporate America to the table in the 1950s and 1960s when calling golf a niche sport was being kind. Jack Nicklaus is still the greatest player until the day Woods goes past his 18 professional major titles.
But because of the era in which he has played and because of his ability to absolutely dominate at a time when people were claiming golf had too much depth for anyone to dominate, Woods is that rarest of athletes in that he brings people who are not fans of his sport to the table. They know who he is and care about how he’s doing even if they can’t name a single person he’s competing against. The only other athlete on earth who currently fits that description is Michael Phelps.
So, when Woods isn’t playing golf, the audience for golf drops precipitously. We’ve known that for years. The “Tiger Effect,” usually causes everything to double: corporate sales, TV ratings, media coverage. I’m one of the few guys in the business who—the majors aside—is just as happy, if not happier, to cover a tournament without Tiger. It isn’t as if we’re going to have a long sitdown in the locker room. Following him on the golf course, which I do at times during the majors, is always a headache: So many people, so much security, so much scrambling for position to actually see a shot hit. My job’s easier when Tiger’s not playing at the weekly tournaments. My job’s more fun when he’s playing in the majors.
But I’m the exception. Everyone else wants Tiger out there. He moves the interest needle like no one else. That said, there WAS a golf tour before Tiger came along and my guess is there will be one after he’s gone.
If, for some reason, Tiger is out for a long time (unlikely) there will be all sorts of doom-saying surrounding the sport. Let’s say for a minute that the tour was forced to make corporate deals for next year that brought about a 20 percent drop in purses. That’s highly unlikely, but if it did, the players would still be playing for $4 to $5 million a week. The winner this week in San Diego would have to settle for an $800,000 first prize. The 125th ranked player on the money list might make only $600,000 for the year.
That’s still triple what golfers were making on tour when Tiger arrived in 1996 and it is a lot more money than most Americans are making today. No business wants to go through a recession but golf can survive one. What’s more, there finally does appear to be some seriously talented young players coming along to challenge Tiger. Note the word challenge. I’m not saying any of them is the next Tiger because in all likelihood there is no next Tiger. But the sport will survive without him whenever the day comes that he walks away.
What will be interesting to see is, once the initial surge of interest that will come with his re-entry (which will be huge) has passed, if he remains as popular as he once was. My guess is he’ll still get screaming galleries but his days as a truly iconic figure OFF the golf course have passed. Once he’s back and winning again, there will be those—starting with Tiger and his team—who will talk about all he has “overcome,” to win again.
That’s when I’ll switch over to watch The Nationwide Tour. I will be perfectly happy to watch Tiger Woods the golfer perform his magic again. But I don’t want to hear one word ever again about how tough a life Tiger Woods the person has had.
I spent yesterday with a family that dealt with real tragedy, whose son dealt with the greatest adversity of all without every complaining. I don’t ever want to hear from Tiger Woods how tough it is to be Tiger Woods. I also don’t want to hear how golf is going to die because he’s gone for a while. It won’t. If fewer people want to watch, so be it. Those who really care about the sport and not just a celebrity will be tuned in this weekend. I’ll be one of them.