By Brian Schaffnit | firstname.lastname@example.org
The PGA Tour’s capstone event, The Masters, was as majestic as ever this year and saw Bubba Watson win his second green jacket in three years with a gritty Sunday performance to hold off rising star and 20-year-old Jordan Spieth.
It was a grand arrival for Spieth on the biggest stage of his sport and another Masters win for one of golf’s most likable players in the long-hitting Watson. Yet it was overshadowed by the absence of Tiger Woods, who did not play in this year’s tournament due to a back injury.
Golf needs Tiger to go back on the prowl, badly.
The Masters had an average viewership of 5.9 million Saturday and roughly 11 million Sunday, the final two days of the four day event. By contrast, the 2013 edition of the tournament saw 8.5 million and 14.7 million people tune in over the weekend to see if Tiger Woods could add to his haul of 14 major tournament victories, which is second all-time behind only Jack Nicklaus.
Woods would ultimately finish fourth but the message was clear: Whether people are rooting for him or against him, he gets people to tune in. Individual sports like tennis and golf get more publicity from a dominant athlete than a team sport does, and golf has capitalized on Woods’ dominance over the last 20 years in a huge way. Woods fascinates golf fans and non-fans alike, and perhaps nothing can describe the “Tiger effect” better than my own admittedly warped logic in May 2012.
I had just completed my associate degree and, as a gift, my parents bought me tickets to the final round of the Players Championship, one of golf’s most prestigious events held right up the road in Ponte Vedra. I’d never been to a PGA Tour event before and was excited to see the people I’d watched on TV in person for the first time. I met up with a friend who goes to the tournament every year and arrived at 2 p.m., right around the time the leaders were teeing off.
He asked me what I wanted to do, and I immediately responded “I want to see Tiger.”
Woods was 10 shots off the lead in a tournament he would eventually finish in a tie for 40th, and the leaders were finishing their warm-ups and preparing to tee off a short distance away from me.
Can you imagine walking in to any other sporting event and saying “I can’t wait to see guy who is in 40th place right now!” After having a good laugh at the irony, I proceeded to hole nine where I joined a huge gallery following Woods around the course, despite him having no shot to win the tournament. I later picked up the leaders a few holes into their round and the gallery following them was similar in size to the one I had just left following Woods.
Individual sports like tennis and golf thrive off the dominance of one athlete because the narratives are simple: One person dominates the field and bests all of his or her competitors through their own skill, and not that of their entire team. While individual accomplishments are certainly recognized in team sports, even elite players had to have great teammates to help get them there.
In a sport like golf, accountability for success or failure is on the person alone, and nobody else. Part of what makes Woods so great is his sustained period of dominance in a sport that is meant to test and break you in every possible way.
Woods has had a lasting legacy. Golf courses have tried to “Tigerproof” themselves by adding more yardage to each hole as a way to try and combat the effectiveness of his titanic blasts off the tee. Woods has fended off every supposed challenger to his throne as golf’s dominant force over the last two decades, and has come back from personal tragedy and scandal off the course as well.
Father Time is undefeated, however, and it appears that Woods may have finally met the one opponent that can best him. Golf has survived the retirement of its great players before – Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and others – and will do so again, but when Woods finally does hang up his spikes, golf will be in for a tumultuous time trying to replace him.
The mantle will be passed to young stars like Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, but are they strong enough to carry it? Time will tell, but for now, let’s enjoy the last few years of one of the best golfers to ever play the game.