The timing couldn’t have been better for the sport of golf. Just as one of its greatest and most charismatic players fades away, a host of young and interesting players has emerged. Finally, golf doesn’t need Tiger Woods anymore.
Not too long ago, the PGA needed Woods to draw television viewers and expand the sport’s appeal beyond die-hard golfers. The ultimate was to have Tiger in the hunt for the last two rounds, especially if it was a major tournament. Television ratings skyrocketed when Woods was at the top of the leaderboard and plummeted when he wasn’t, which wasn’t very often.
Times change, and everybody knows that Tiger Woods is no longer Tiger Woods. The man that many consider to be the greatest golfer of all time is now just another hacker who has a terrific round every once in a while, but can’t maintain it over four days. Going into this week’s PGA Championship Woods is ranked 278th in the world, one spot ahead of Thanyakorn Khrongpha. And the man whose often-stated career goal is to win the most major championships in history, and has won this particular major four times, has now missed the cut in three of the last four majors.
Golf suffered in silence the last few years while Woods battled various injuries, not to mention Father Time. Fans (and especially PGA and television executives) kept their fingers crossed that Tiger would miraculously regain that magic touch and the damn-the-torpedoes approach that made him so successful and so popular.
But now, golf has discovered it can survive quite nicely without its most popular player. And that’s because a new wave of young, talented golfers has emerged, and the plural is important here. Golf can’t depend on one superstar unless, like Woods in the past, he has a good chance to win every week or, at the least, is in the running on Sunday, when most of the viewers tune in. Golf, like all sports, needs its stars to shine the brightest when it means the most. The sport is too difficult and too fickle and even the best in the world can have a bad round or even a bad tournament.
But when you have three or four young stars who are potential superstars, the odds are good that one or two of them will be near the top of the leaderboard every week. And that also sets up another thing golf needs badly right now – interesting rivalries. The history of golf is filled with them, whether it’s Arnold Palmer vs. Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson. Now, we have them again.
The young golfer who has deservedly gotten most of the attention lately is Jordan Spieth, who has been at his best in the biggest events. But there’s also Rory McIlroy and Jason Day and Justin Rose and Dustin Johnson. All of them are in their 20s or early 30s and they can all play and they all have personalities, which is important if golf wants to spread its appeal beyond the country club set.
That’s what Tiger Woods did better than any golfer in history, with the possible exception of Arnie and his Army. Both of them – as well as players like Jones and Hogan and Nicklaus – transcended the sport and even people who never picked up a golf club in their lives knew who they were and what they had accomplished.
That’s the real key to the widespread success of any sport. Professional football is the most popular sport in the country and most of the people sitting in the stands or watching on television never laced up a pair of shoulder pads. To attract those fans, and keep them, you have to have exciting competition and intriguing competitors.
For too long, the PGA had to depend on one man. And even though the PGA would love to have Tiger Woods back, it no longer needs him.