With all this talk about Tiger Woods return to golf at the Masters this week, and what kind of reaction people will give him at the tournament, an interesting question arose on one of the national radio shows: HAS TIGER WOODS REALLY CHANGED GOLF? The obvious answer seems yes, as Tiger has broken records and money purses have increased. But, when you actually look at several of the factors that were brought up on the show, it’s not as clear cut as thought:
1) TV Viewership
There is no doubt that TV viewership has increased from the time Tiger turned pro (1996) until today. Major TV viewership is up a HUGE percentage, especially when Tiger is at or near the lead. But, what about when Tiger is not anywhere near the lead, or even misses the cut. Take for instance, the 2006 US Open, when Tiger missed the cut. That tournament took in a 3.5 rating, which was the LOWEST RATED US Open since 1971. Fewer viewers watched that tournament that any US Open on record. So, the question must be asked: if people only watch the tournaments to see Tiger play, how has golf really changed? It’s changed in the sense that ONE PLAYER is a super mega-popular hit, but the other players, not a single one, including Phil Mickleson, draws viewers. So, Tiger has helped Tiger Woods popularity with his play, but he hasn’t exactly helped the other players or the Tour in general, because when other players are winning, people leave in droves.
2) Quality of Golf
Tiger is obviously a step above the other players, when he is at his normal level of play. But, the theory has always been that with the improvement of Tiger, other players have followed suit and the game AS A WHOLE has improved. Taking away Tiger Woods, who led the Tour in scoring 9 times, look at the leading Tour scorer in the 5 years before Tiger entered the Tour, and the last 5 years (sans Tiger).
1991: Fred Couples (69.59)
1992: Fred Couples (69.38)
1993: Greg Norman (68.90)
1994: Greg Norman (68.80)
1995: Nick Price (69.06)
2009: Steve Stricker (69.51)
2008: Sergio Garcia (69.12)
2007: Jeff Overton (70.01)
2006: Jim Furyk (68.86)
2005: Vijay Singh (69.59)
Judging by those stats, scoring is in fact UP since Tiger joined the Tour. Now, some people would argue that as players are hitting the ball longer, courses have been toughened up to make scoring more difficult. I do not disagree with this assesment because most PGA Tour level courses have changed their lengths to challenge the players more. BUT, Tiger Woods scoring has gotten better from 1997 through 2009. And if the theory is that with Tiger’s improvement has come the improvement of other players, why haven’t the scores even slightly improved over the past 13 years?
3) African-American explosion in golf
When Tiger Woods became the first African-American to win the Masters in 1997, it was heralded as a Jackie Robinson-esque moment for the black population. And it was, because the Masters is about as snooty white a tournament as there is. But, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, it opened up the flood gates for black players into the majors. When SEC schools began recruiting black players in the 1960’s to play basketball, it quickly became common. But since Tiger won that tournament, not a single African American has challenged for major. This stat blew me away, which I heard on the radio show: there is not a SINGLE african-american on Tour today, besides Tiger Woods. And if you go to most golf courses on a normal day, I would say the ratio of white players to black players is 100 to 1.
Now, you might say that it still hasn’t been enough time since Tiger’s win in 1997 to show an impact in the number of players on Tour. So, I went back and looked at the NCAA Champions and US Amateur champions since 1998. NOT ONE of them was african-american. So, where is all this popularity that Tiger has created within the African-American community? I am not saying that Tiger isn’t popular in that community, but I think there has always been a void of few black players on the professional tour, and it appears to me Tiger is not filling that void.
In the issue of fairness, I can admit that Tiger has improved his pockets and the pockets of his competitors since his joining of the Tour. Corporate sponsership is up, leading to upwards of 50-75 players a year making over a million dollars in earnings. That all rests on Tiger.
But now, with his damaged reputation and declining popularity, is the game going to be brought down with it? Because as you can see above, Tiger has improved his game, Tiger has increased TV viewership, and Tiger is the sole representative of the african-american population, but with him gone, where does that actually leave the sport? Is that actually good for the sport if ONE MAN, and clearly a damaged man, is basically driving your whole sport?