Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Tigers Woods' Impact on Golf, 15 Years After First Masters Win

“There it is. A win for the ages,” declared CBS’ Jim Nantz as Tiger Woods closed out his historic victory at the 1997 Masters.  Playing his first major as a professional, the 21 year-old Woods dominated Augusta National for four days, setting a new course record as he crushed the field by an incredible 12 strokes.  This triumph by an African-American golfer carried an additional resonance because it occurred at Augusta, a Georgia country club that had only admitted its first black member in 1990.  Indeed, no African American had even played in the Masters until Lee Elder teed off in 1975.  Golf would never be the same and the sport seemed primed for meteoric growth as Tiger set his sights on breaking Jack Nicklaus all-time record of 18 major championships.  While the Tiger era produced incredible interest in golf, its impact has not been as revolutionary as might have been expected 15 years ago.

In the decade after his first Masters’ victory, Woods became the biggest draw in all of sports, as the PGA Tour experienced huge ratings gains and purses grew. The TV viewership for tournaments he won often exceeded the audiences for NBA games in the immediate post-Michael Jordan years.   From 1999-2002, Tiger achieved unprecedented success, winning 7 of 11 major titles at one point, including four consecutive wins for a “Tiger Slam.”  After stumbling while retooling his swing in 2003-04, Woods returned to dominate again from 2005-08, winning nearly half of the events he entered, including 6 majors.   At a relatively young age, Tiger made a plausible case that he was already the greatest golfer ever.

In some ways, though, Tiger’s impact has not been as dramatic as some imagined in the spring of 1997.  Many foresaw a surge of minority golfers onto the PGA Tour, but Woods is the only African American playing regularly today.  In 2011, another black player, Joseph Bramlett earned his tour card, only to lose it when he finished 196th on the money list (only the top 125 keep their memberships) Of course, Tiger is half Asian as well and may have inspired a slight increase in Asian-American players.  Witness the emergence of Anthony Kim and a few others.

Some believed Tiger’s success would spawn rising participation in the sport across the country.  Instead, the number of golfers declined over the last decade, falling from 28.8 million in 2000 to 26.1 million in 2010. (Golf Week, May 9, 2011) The reasons for this drop are complex, ranging from the Great Recession to the high cost of clubs and country club memberships. With “Mad Men” returning, we can see that gender roles have changed and the days when a husband could just tell his wife he was going to go play nine holes after work have long since passed. 

More troubling for the future of the sport is the dramatic decline in youth golfers, with 24 percent fewer kids playing in 2008 compared with 2005.  Despite Tiger’s celebrity, fewer young people are taking up the game while more are playing tennis, where youth participation grew by 28 percent over the last decade (Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2010).   The rise of tennis over this period is particularly impressive given the fact that there hasn’t been a major American star on the pro circuit since Andre Agassi’s retirement in 2006.

After his infamous car wreck outside his Florida home on Thanksgiving 2009, Tiger struggled on the course for the following 2 ½ years, but he finally won a tour event for the first time since that fateful night, surpassing the field at the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks ago.  Despite the bad publicity surrounding his divorce, Woods remains the biggest draw in the sport, as the ratings for his victory were 129% higher than the previous year’s final round.  With Tiger’s resurgence, anticipation is high for this week’s Masters and Woods will be one of the favorites, along with longtime rival Phil Mickelson and 23 year-old Rory Mcllroy, whose dominating win at last year’s U.S. Open evoked comparisons to Woods’ first Masters triumph.

Now 36, Tiger has won 14 major championships, leaving him five short of breaking Nicklaus’ record.  If Tiger can continue to regain form, his chase of the Golden Bear’s mark will likely raise interest in the sport once again.  But it appears the “win for the ages” didn’t quite change the world in the way some anticipated.

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