How Much of the Void Left by Tiger Woods Will Golf's Rising Stars Fill?

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistJune 16, 2014

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As we've experienced time and time again over the past six years, golf majors just aren't the same without Tiger Woods contending.

It's not that there aren't other stars in golf—there certainly are. Among others, Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler can all, to one degree or another, move the needle. This year, 29-year-old Martin Kaymer has done something that even Woods never did—win The Players Championship and the U.S. Open back-to-back.

But can any of these guys—individually or collectively—make up for the loss of a dominating Woods? If the two majors that have come and gone in 2014 are any indication, it's not looking good.

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Over the past year, particularly the last three majors, golf hasn't had its biggest stars turning in their best performances at major tournaments. It also hasn't had much Sunday drama in majors. Those factors combine to make the currently Tiger-less sport look particularly bleak.

This past weekend was the U.S. Open—the major which Tiger Woods last won, famously hobbling on one leg in a 19-hole Monday playoff in 2008 at Torrey Pines. The 2014 edition at Pinehurst No. 2 was all about one man, the smiling but stoic German, Kaymer—a still-in-his-20s but forgotten former No. 1.

Kaymer's eight-stroke never-really-in-doubt victory was impressive, but it was massively under-appreciated, as Kyle Porter of CBS Sports lamented

Kaymer's performance was the stuff of legend, ours as fans was decidedly not. Some of the jeering of Kaymer on Sunday was borderline embarrassing.

This was a 29-year-old German constructing the tallest, most beautiful piece of golfing architecture we've seen maybe since Tiger Woods at Pebble Beach in 2000 and it fell flat on the American sports landscape.

That bums me out as a golf fan.

Overshadowed by the Wold Cup, the NBA Finals and a bevy of hot takes, Kaymer's second major title—which legendary golf writer Dan Jenkins considered to be one of the best performances he'd ever seen at the U.S. Open—barely made a dent in the newswires or television ratings.

The Masters was a similar story, though possibly even more damning because two Americans were in contention on the final Sunday.

Bubba Watson won his second title in Augusta this year by running away from 20-year-old Jordan Spieth on the back nine, and yet the Masters had its lowest ratings on CBS since 1957. That proved that 35-year-old Watson alone can't fuel a tournament.

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 13:  Bubba Watson of the United States shakes hands with Jordan Spieth on the 18th green after Watson won the 2014 Masters Tournament by a three-stroke margin at Augusta National Golf Club on April 13, 2014 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo
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It's noticeable that in both of those majors, the most recognizable non-Tiger names in golf—Mickelson, McIlroy and Scott—were not a factor.

Mickelson missed the cut in Augusta and was too far back to count at Pinehurst, while McIlroy and Scott were solid at both but never threatened the leaders. 

McIlroy has been majorly hyped as the next Tiger Woods—especially after the Northern Irishman had five top-five finishes and two major victories before he even turned 24. In January of last year, he was awarded a "blockbuster" Nike contract that overshadowed even Tiger money.

However, since then he hasn't done much. He's currently No. 6 in the rankings and hasn't had a top-five finish in the last six majors. 

At just 25, McIlroy has plenty of time to figure things out, but he's currently not making the PGA Tour miss the days of Tiger domination any less.

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Scott is now the No. 1 golfer in the world and seems to have everything a popular athlete needs for maximum marketability: he's good looking, he's won the Masters and he's usually a solid performer. 

Scott has 12 top-10 finishes at majors in his career—eight of them within the last four years. He even finished tied for ninth at last week's U.S. Open.

But still, at 33 years old, Scott seems to lack the killer instinct needed to dominate and contend for major after major. He will surely remain a popular figure and help ratings when he's around, but he's not a big enough star for people to pay attention to if he's not on the top of the leaderboard.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Mickelson, of course, will always be a ratings grab, but there is nothing "rising" about his star. The five-time major champion is one of the greatest golfers of his generation, but at 44 years old, his generation is quickly moving to the rear-view mirror.

That leaves the not-yet-major-winners crowd to discuss.

Currently, the future generation is being led by Spieth and Fowler.

Spieth has been grabbing headlines for the past year after he became the first teenager to win a title on the PGA Tour in 82 years last July. He has continued his rise in 2014, playing in the final pairing on Sunday in both the Masters and the Players Championship.

Scott told David Dusek of Golf Week that he thinks Spieth could get the top ranking sooner rather than later

"I just think he's awesome," Scott said. "I've played with him a few times now and I think he's awesome."

It's high praise from a man who was widely regarded as an up-and-coming rival for Tiger Woods a decade ago. The question today, however, is whether Spieth is awesome enough to someday climb to the top of the rankings, even though it's an unfair question to ask about someone who is only 20.

"He should be thinking of that soon," said Scott, who is now 33. "It looks like he's at the peak of the game already, so he should be doing that now. He's got it all happening right now to go to the top."

Spieth's stock is definitely on the rise, but it's bad news that even when he was tied for the lead heading into the final Sunday of a major (like he was in Augusta), the ratings still didn't trend upwards. He's not yet seen as a legitimate threat, and, therefore, not yet a superstar.

Fowler, the 25-year-old American with a big personality and blindingly bright clothing, has been on the upswing this year—finishing in the top five at the Masters and second at Pinehurst. But he hasn't yet reached his potential.

It could be years before he wins a major, if he does at all.

Through all of this doom and gloom, it's interesting to look at last year's PGA Championship as a rare instance when a tournament was superstar-less on Sunday and yet soared in the ratings. That championship—won by Jason Dufner by two strokes over Jim Furyk—saw a significant increase in television viewers based on the previous year.

Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

The biggest difference between that tournament and the two majors so far this year? It was a close, up-in-the-air tournament on the final Sunday. It also helped that there were no summer Olympics to contend with and no NBA playoffs or World Cup in the way. Hey—sometimes a little outside assistance is nice. 

A sport needs superstars, yes, but it's rare that one star can carry an entire sport.

Woods is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, and one person isn't going to be able to take his place.

Hopefully Woods will come back soon, stay healthy and get back to winning majors. It would be a shame to see an athlete of that caliber have his career cut short.

But with or without a major-winning Tiger, golf is going to have to figure out a way to attract viewers. 

The sport needs its biggest names to show up on the biggest stages. It needs to promote athletes from all over the world so that more than just American golfers are known to Americans. And most of all, it needs some final-Sunday tension and surprises to really spice things up.

The rising stars can't do it alone.


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