Visit any country club in golf season and you’ll find caddies scrubbing, polishing, and cleaning the clubs that their golfers have abused. Now project that scene onto a far-grander scale and you’ll have some idea as to what’s going on in golf these days.
PGA officials and Tiger Woods’ advisers are toiling over the superstar’s badly scuffed image. They’re trying to figure out how to restore the innocent sheen to a personality who unfortunately adhered a little too closely to his chief sponsor’s slogan. He just did it. And did it. And did it.
In the months since Woods, his reputation tarnished by tabloid headlines, walked away, gold has developed a 19th hole. And millions of dollars from disillusioned sponsors and tournament patrons are being sucked down that hole every week.
Woods is the face of golf, the most recognizable athlete on the planet. And until he gets the egg off that face, there’s zero chance that the game’s finances will ever get back to par.
According to the Wall Street Journal, three of the Tour’s 46 tournaments in 2010 and 13 in 2011 don’t have sponsors. TV ratings without Woods have taken a similar nose dive.
It’s an all together too unpleasant reminder of what the Tour was like before Tiger.
Watching golf in the early ‘90s was like seeing “Cats” out of town. There just weren’t many recognizable personalities and those there all tended to look alike, play alike, dress alike, and talk alike.
Jack Nicklaus was over the hill. Greg Norman couldn’t keep from choking himself. Nick Faldo was cantankerous. Corey Pavin had the appeal of Harry Reid. Freddie Couples was about as sexy as it got. As a result, you had to be a real golf devotee or a Johnny Miller fan to tune in on a non-major Sunday.
A decade-plus of Tiger-fueled growth was like steroids for the Tour. It developed muscles that allowed it to compete with the sporting world’s big boys. Today even Tiger’s supporting cast contains some interesting characters and recognizable faces: Phil Mickleson, Sergio Garcia, Rory McIlroy. The game is more international. You don’t have to belong to a country club to know about hybrids or club-head speed.
But even with Woods and the record purses his presence generated for the Tour, golf was slipping a bit. According to the Journal, even with Tiger, TV ratings and participation were declining.
Less than 3.5 million watched the average final round in 2009, down from four million in 1999. And just over 10 percent of Americans six and over had played in 2008, down from 12. 1 percent in 1990.
Tour sponsors don’t figure to be coming back any time soon. Not with the game’s overarching figure embarrassingly smeared. Not with Woods out of the camera’s range for who knows how long. Not with the economy in the tank.
Commissioner Tim Finchem has no choice but to stay the course and hope that some young stud–Northern Ireland’s McIlroy or Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa–can win a major and excite a new generation of viewers the way Tiger’s riveting emergence did in the mid-90s.
But neither McIlroy nor Ishikawa–nor anyone else on the horizon–has Tiger’s sex-appeal–an attribute that formerly was thought of as a positive. And then there was Tiger’s racial cross-over appeal. Ishikawa’s rise would certainly intrigue Asian-Americans, but many of them–unlike African-Americans in the ‘90s—already are committed golf enthusiasts.
So what can a sport that finds itself, you should pardon the expression, in the woods do?
Nothing but count the days until Tiger returns with a set of clean clubs and a well-scrubbed image.