The most prestigious golf tournament in the world has started and even though it’s as important as ever, it’s not nearly as interesting as it could have been. Tiger Woods won’t play at the Master this year because of a sore back and it’s a simple and sad fact that golf without Tiger isn’t nearly as much fun as it is with him, and it doesn’t matter whether you like him or not.
Woods doesn’t necessarily have to win, but any tournament will be a success if he’s at least in contention on Sunday, and it will be a rip-roaring success if he’s near the top of the leaderboard during Sunday’s final nine holes. Television ratings spike dramatically when that happens and that, of course, makes everybody involved with the PGA Tour very, very happy.
Woods’s real appeal is that even non-golfers are interested in how he does, especially in a major tournament like the Masters. And the key to real success in any professional sport is to draw in the people who don’t necessarily play it or ever like it that much. That’s why the NFL is so popular and the WNBA is not – more women watch football than women’s basketball.
Every show needs a star and when it comes to golf, Woods is perhaps the biggest top box office draw of all time. Other golfers, like Phil Mickelson, have their share of fans, but almost all of them are golfers or, in Mickelson’s case, left-handers. Arnold Palmer had the same effect a half-century ago and a large part of Arnie’s Army never picked up a golf club in their lives.
All professional sports market star power – when the Miami Heat play the Los Angeles Lakers the pregame hype is all about LeBron and Kobe and when the New England Patriots play the Denver Broncos it’s all about Brady vs. Manning. And that star power is much more important in individual sports like golf and tennis, where fans don’t have inbred team loyalties to draw them in.
That’s the biggest problem with professional tennis, at least in this country (and we are, after all, the only country that matters). There aren’t any American superstars who aren’t named Williams and tennis’ popularity is at an all-time low here. The last time American men won a Grand Slam event was all the way back in 2003, when Andre Agassi won the Australian Open and Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open. The highest ranked U.S. player today is John Isner at No. 9, and we’d be willing to bet you’d have to stop a lot of people on the street before you found one who knows who John Isner is.
It’s the same story in golf, with a big difference. In tennis, you can pretty much predict who will win or at least make it to the finals of an event – it’s going to be Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic and fans know they’re going to get at least one of them and probably two of them in a Grand Slam final. But in golf, there’s a different winner every week and nobody can dominate like the Big 3 of tennis can – unless that person is Tiger Woods.
But Woods hasn’t dominated golf for a while now, even though he’s still the best in the world when healthy. That has become a major factor, however, as Woods’ body keeps breaking down. Every time he has an injury it takes that much more time for him to get his game back into top form, and just when he appears ready to take over the PGA Tour again, he gets hurt again.
That’s why everybody was crushed when Woods announced he’d have to miss the Masters this year. Fans were disappointed and television and advertising executives were devastated. And that’s why golf needs a new superstar, somebody who not only wins tournaments, but also wins over the gallery. Golf needs somebody that even the non-golfers care about. Even if Woods returns and plays like he used to, he’s no longer a kid and it doesn’t appear there is anybody in the wings with his universal appeal. And golf won’t attract that cross-over crowd again until a new star emerges.
Contact Kevin Noonan at email@example.com.