Jason Day, the #1 golfer in the world, just went wire-to-wire and recorded his seventh PGA Tour victory in the last year, a streak reminiscent of Tiger Woods in his prime. However, this week’s The Players Championship received so little media coverage that I wouldn’t be surprised if you hadn’t heard anything about it at all. The current state of golf is in rapid decline, and despite Day, Jordan Spieth, and Rory McIlroy taking turns in the spotlight, the sport faces serious challenges to regaining its former popularity.
Back in August of 2014, I wrote an article called Stop Talking So Much About Tiger Woods! The general idea I presented was that Tiger receives way too much attention from the media for a golfer who takes extended leaves of absence and performs poorly when he does play. While the public is continually fed the latest Tiger injury update, the focus is shifted away from the world’s best, the ones who really deserve the spotlight. Now almost two years later, the article remains as true as it was back then. Tiger has participated in only a handful of events since August 2014, and hasn’t won a tournament since August 2013. Yet, the speculations on when Tiger will return to the PGA, if he’ll ever play like the old Tiger, and if Tiger will ever take down his 15th major and first since 2008 have persisted. While all this talk still annoys me to some extent, I now fully understand the reasoning behind it. Golf needs Tiger.
Tiger Woods broke the mold. Even today, golf still largely holds the rich, white, country club image that constricts its audience and appeal. However, Tiger Woods is of African American, Caucasian, Native American, and Asian heritage. Tiger brought in people from all ethnic backgrounds and social statuses. He has won 79 PGA Tour events and 14 Majors, both second all-time. He has held the #1 ranking in the world for a total of 683 weeks, or over 13 years total. Greg Norman is the only other golfer to hold the title for over 100 weeks. Tiger Woods was marketable in the same way Michael Jordan was for basketball- a global face for the sport, a figure anyone could identify, regardless if they watched sports or not. And people will turn on the TV to watch Tiger. When Tiger Woods played the Wyndham Championship August of 2015, his most recent strong performance in a tournament, it became the most viewed round of non-major PGA golf since The Players Championship in 2013, which Tiger won. Tiger finished 10th in the event- imagine the ratings if he had won.
However, as time passes, a new generation of potential golf fans enters the market, fans with no real knowledge of Tiger Woods’ greatness. I’m 17 years old. At the time of Tiger Woods’ last major, the 2008 U.S. Open, I was nine years old. While I remember a few things from that tournament, namely how scoring-wise it was one of the most difficult majors of all-time, and how Tiger won a playoff against Rocco Mediate for the title, most nine year-olds don’t watch golf, and hardly anyone younger than me will have any memory of Tiger winning a major. In this up-and-coming generation, more people view Tiger as disgraced and injury-prone; a defeated man rather than a champion. Where does Tiger currently stand in the world rankings? 508th. For the first time since he was an amateur in 1996, Tiger isn’t even in the top 500.
With chances of the old Tiger resurfacing only getting slimmer, the game needs a new Tiger. Unfortunately for golf, that’s a near impossible task. A game can only really become globalized once. There can’t be another Tiger Woods in the same way there will never be another Michael Jordan. Sure, LeBron James can become the new face of the game, and Stephen Curry can revolutionize the way the game is played, but they will never reach the heights of Jordan’s popularity. Similarly, Jordan Spieth can be billed as the next Tiger, but can he really carry the whole sport? Especially when he and Phil Mickelson both miss the cut, as they did this past week, there really isn’t much of a reason to watch. Jason Day is a great guy, but he isn’t can’t miss TV.
People of the social media generation are all about getting as much entertainment as quickly as possible. Like it or not, that’s the future. While at times I still find golf nice and relaxing to watch, the casual fan won’t. Golf shares the same problems as baseball: both sports are slow, and boring if you don’t really care about what’s going on. Golf rounds are five hours long- people are playing less golf and watching less golf at an alarming rate. If people aren’t going to put up with 20 seconds between pitches in baseball, can we really expect them to wait five minutes between swings?
To recapture some of their lost audience, both golf and baseball need personalities- successful, entertaining athletes who people will want to follow and support. The largest problem with this is the nature of the sports themselves. Each sport has a history of exclusivity, limiting potential fans, and a great deal of respect for the game. In both baseball and golf, there is a certain etiquette, a “correct” way to play the game, which favors humbleness over showiness. One of the biggest challenges moving forward for these sports will be to allow players to express and market themselves while still maintaining the character and integrity of its history.
I sincerely hope golf can find a way to reverse its downward trend in popularity. As someone who has grown up playing and watching the game, I have a strong admiration for the time and effort it takes to be successful in the sport. However, without a definitive global icon, without a Tiger Woods, golf faces an uphill climb.