Sometime during the decade when Tiger Woods dominated professional golf – and the word "dominated" doesn't really do justice to exactly what he did – I thought a good column would be asking his fellow pros if they were getting a little tired of it.
The man was winning everything, or winning so often that it seemed as if it was everything. Between 1999 and 2009, Woods recorded 64 of his 79 PGA tour victories and won 13 of his 14 majors. He made the cut in 142 straight events, which is a record that may never even be approached, let alone broken. It might be his most impressive career accomplishment. He was just always there.
So, I asked, and the other golfers mostly laughed, because, at that time, being tired of losing to Tiger was like being tired of gravity. What was the point? But one of them also told me, "Are you kidding? He makes money for everybody."
That much was certainly true, and the most clear-eyed among people who took their living from the sport recognized it easily. It was true for the little tournaments that had no trouble finding sponsors, and the local courses that saw an uptick in the number of rounds played, and the manufacturers whose products were in demand, and, of course, for the other professional players who knew that the crowds and the endorsements and the prize money and the television ratings and the entire revenue stream were all jetting through a powerful sluice gate that wore red on Sunday and pumped its fist in triumph. It was pretty remarkable.
What is happening right now isn't quite that, but it is a welcome encore for all those who drink at the Tiger trough. On Sunday, with the 42-year-old Woods not only in contention at the British Open, but briefly holding the sole lead on the back nine, television ratings for the final day of the major soared to their highest point in 18 years … since Tiger finished off a career grand slam at St. Andrews at the age of 24.
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It was an exciting free-for-all finish on Sunday and compelling golf for devoted fans of the sport, but the casual watchers didn't tune in to see Francesco Molinari, Eddie Pepperell and Xander Schauffele. They were in front of the screen for Tiger Woods and, as long as his surgically repaired back holds out, they will return. When it's over, though, as we've seen in the past, his place won't be filled by golfers who are merely golfers. In fact, it won't be filled at all.
The sport recognizes this, but doesn't know how to fix it. It could be there is nothing to fix and the people who enjoyed the fruits of his first run, and are experiencing some of that again during his recent renaissance, should just be happy that Tiger Woods came along at all. Recreating him when he's finally finished, or trying to transfer the excitement he brings to some other guy in a polyester shirt, just isn't going to happen.
The industry trends in the last few years have been unsettling for golf. The National Golf Foundation estimated that 150-175 courses closed nationwide in 2017, although the reasons for the downturn in play go far deeper than any one factor. The game is time-consuming, expensive and, by the way, difficult. For a population that is increasingly frenetic, money-conscious and happier with instant gratification, that's not a good combination. Equipment companies are suffering as a result, and Nike gave up that end of the business altogether in 2016.
A return by Tiger Woods isn't going to mend all that. For one thing, how long can he last this time? He can push the sport a little farther forward in the country's consciousness, however, which is more than you can say for Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose or any of the current superstars who all seem to have some variation of the same name. All those guys can do is play golf.
The real question is why Woods is so transfixing, even for those who don't follow the game closely? The fascination predates the tawdry revelations about his personal life, predates his struggles and comeback from injury, and gets to that indefinable matter of what constitutes "cool." Tiger Woods was cool in a way golf had rarely seen, this ridiculously talented African-Asian-American phenom who won six USGA titles (three Junior Amateur and three U.S. Amateur) before he even turned pro at age 20. Arnold Palmer was cool in his day, too, and also moved the needle on interest in the sport, but not like this.