Tiger Woods is having quite the remarkable career. In some circles he’s considered the greatest golfer of all time, due mostly to the incredible run of dominance he compiled last decade. For quite a few years, he was the undisputed best there was. Nobody could touch him in work ethic, preparation, or raw talent. All of those skills, and his savvy business sense and ability as a spokesman made him one of the richest and most widely recognized athletes in the world. Die-hard golf fans knew his choice of clubs, reminisced over his greatest matches, and even discussed the play-by-play for his most famous holes. Casual golf fans knew where he would be, and tuned in for the television broadcasts when he stepped up to the green. Even people who had never watched a golf tournament in their lives knew what Tiger was up to.
But is Tiger still worth all of that focus? He has won two significant tournaments this year, and during the first two rounds of the 2012 U.S. Open, he looked poised to make it a third. But a serious meltdown left him lagging behind, and the fact remains that Tiger is now a shell of the athlete he used to be. He no longer wins consistently, and while he led the tour for years, he’s now ranked #4 in the world. He’s been through serious personal issues, aired out in the public eye, including injuries and a messy divorce. So why is it that he still receives the level of coverage he has.
The fact remains most casual golf fans don’t know many golfers beyond Tiger Woods. Out of the top fifty ranked golfers in the world, twenty of them are American. But how many Americans can name more than even one or two of them? Last year’s number four ranked golfer is Graeme McDowell. He actually won the U.S. Open in 2011, and beat Tiger Woods that season as well. But how many casual fans have even heard of him? Dustin Johnson is ranked 14th in the world. He won a competition right before the U.S. Open, came a hair’s width from winning the PGA Championship, was in the running at the 2011 British Opening right up until the end, and had one of the largest leads at one point in the U.S. Open in history. But even though he was included in a national ad paid for by the PGA, chances are you wouldn’t be able to point him out in a lineup.
Golf isn’t alone in sports with the strategy of putting forward their best and brightest stars to represent the game. Baseball and basketball in particular are always looking towards a few, key players to promote their sport internationally. But because these sports have a large handful of players who are recognized even by casual fans, they aren’t quite as affected if these players don’t do well. These are also team sports, so there’s a wider pool to draw from. But in an individual sport like golf, elite talent that’s marketable is much harder to come by. So while there are many golfers who have pushed past Tiger in recent years, including top ten-ranked Americans like Hunter Mahan, Matt Kuchar and Jason Dufner, none of them draw like Tiger. And if he isn’t performing, the revenue of the entire sport suffers.
Tiger Woods has certainly been good for golf, regardless of his personal failings. But the blowback from his enormous popularity means the sport loses fans when he’s off the leaderboard. Check the television ratings for the next tournament at the Errol Estate Golf and Country Club. If Tiger’s not playing well, you’ll surely notice the difference.