2014 US Open: Golf Is in Desperate Need of a Great Week

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistJune 11, 2014

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, JUNE 7-8 - FILE - In this April 14, 2014, file photo, a flag on the 10th green blows in the wind at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2 in Pinehurst, N.C. The course is considered the masterpiece of Donald Ross, who completed Pinehurst No. 2 in 1907 and continued to refine it until his death in 1948. It has hosted the U.S. Open in 1999 and 2005. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Gerry Broome/Associated Press

You know that the game of golf is in trouble when the two most exciting events to happen this season have been Rory McIlroy calling off his engagement to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki and Phil Mickelson being met by two FBI agents regarding an insider trading investigation as he walked off the 18th green at the Memorial.

We all knew the day would eventually arrive when Woods and Mickelson would either step away from the game completely or would no longer be factors in big events.

And we all knew the possibility existed that the aftermath of the Woods-Mickelson era could be quite ugly for the game of golf.

But it is difficult to believe that anyone could have predicted just how sharp of a downturn the game of golf would have taken with Woods and Mickelson only temporarily out of the spotlight.

Woods is out of action while recovering from back surgery while Mickelson has simply been in a slump this season, and television ratings have already taken a complete nosedive.

There have been two big events in the world of professional golf this seasonthe Masters and The Players Championship.

Woods did not attend either event, and Mickelson missed the cut in both events.

So what was the impact of the absence of these two titans of the game?

The weekend television ratings for the Masters reached its lowest level since 1957, which was the year before the now-84-year-old Arnold Palmer won his first green jacket.

The ratings for NBC's final-round coverage of The Players Championship dropped by 54 percent from 2013 when Woods won the event and hit its lowest level in the past 15 years.

This is an incredible decline in interest in these two events based almost solely on the absence of just two players.

The final round of the Masters should have been a dream come true for this bright new era of the game that the PGA Tour has been attempting to convince its audience of for a couple of years now.

The Masters had so-called young guns Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler in contention while Bubba Watson was attempting to win his second green jacket in three years. Matt Kuchar was attempting to finally capture his first major title, and Fred Couples was vying to become golf's oldest major champion.

Yet based on the ratings, the general public had very little interest in any of this.

While the lack of interest in events such as the Masters and The Players Championship due largely to the absence of Woods and Mickelson should be concerning to the game of golf, it is not completely unexpected.

However, what should be even more concerning is that this mass exodus in viewers has been prevalent in more than just the events that Woods and Mickelson used to attend.

Final-round television ratings have dropped from 2013 to 2014 for 12 out of the last 15 PGA Tour events.

The only events where ratings did not drop from 2013 were the Honda Classic, when McIlroy was in contention on Sunday, the Valero Texas Open and the Shell Houston Open (which was hit by a long rain delay in 2013).

While the talking heads constantly try to convince us all that the game of golf is in a good place with some exciting new talented entering the scene (which can be expected because, after all, their jobs depend on golf being in a good place), the numbers tell a much different and far grimmer story.

The game of golf is clearly in trouble.

Golf, unlike sports such as football where parity is key to its success, has never been more popular than when there is a single dominate force or small group of dominant players in the game.

Between 1997 and 2008, Woods dominated the game in a manner that had rarely been seen throughout history. The result of Woods' success was an unprecedented surge in television ratings and general level interest in the professional game.

But Woods has left a void so large that players are now reaching the top 10 in the World Golf Rankings based on a just handful of strong finishes. Adam Scott recently took over the No. 1 position in the World Golf Rankings while having not won a single tournament in the eight months prior to that time.

This is not, and has never been, the type of thing that draws the masses to the game of golf.

And this is precisely why the 2014 U.S. Open has now become one of the most important events in recent memory with regards to the general well-being of the game of golf.

Golf is in desperate need of some excitement, and what better stage to produce that excitement on than the U.S. Open at an iconic venue such as Pinehurst No. 2.

Whether it is Mickelson capturing the career grand slam this weekend, or some kind of epic battle between the likes of Spieth and McIlroy, or Scott dominating the field and truly establishing himself as the world’s best player, the game of golf is absolutely starving for somethinganythingto capture the attention of its audience this week at Pinehurst.

There are, of course, those of you who will believe all of this doom and gloom is a bit much and will point to how the game of golf survived for many years before Woods and Mickelson and will survive long after they are gone from the game.

And in some ways, you will be correct. The game of golf has indeed survived long before Woods and Mickelson and will survive long after these two players have left the game.

However, there is a big difference between surviving and thriving.

Right now, the game of golf is surviving, but based on the television ratings and general level of interest in the game, it is certainly not thriving.

While the U.S. Open is always a huge week for the world of professional golf, it is difficult to remember a week more important to the long-term success of the game than this week at Pinehurst.

The stage is set. Now, all we can do is sit back and hope that the participants will step up and entertain us for the first time all season.