News & Opinion

Tour’s Tiger test: When he shows, it’s big

Tiger Woods will make his 2019 debut this week at Torrey Pines, and as creatures of habit go, the Dude in the Red Shirt has become Tyrannosaurus rex. It marks the ninth time since 2006 that Woods has begun his competitive calendar year at the San Diego muni, which is the closest thing an eight-time winner at this course has to a home ballpark.

Sorry, Los Angeles. Woods may have been born and raised in nearby Cypress, and though he has committed to playing next month at Riviera Country Club, his legacy is defined to a much greater extent by his accomplishments 125 miles south. Torrey Pines is where Woods began his big comeback last year. It also remains the site of his last major title, the 2008 U.S. Open.

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Tiger Woods draws a crowd wherever he appears, so expect this week’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego to be another big draw.

© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
Tiger Woods draws a crowd wherever he appears, so expect this week’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego to be another big draw.

What’s amazing about all this is that a guy who hasn’t won a major title in 10½ years continues to carry the game on his back from a commercial standpoint, even after that back has been surgically repaired four times. Whether you’re sick of all the attention Woods has gotten during the past 12 months or you just hung a new poster of him on your bedroom wall, it is almost impossible to overstate this latest wave of Tigermania and its impact on pro golf’s standing in the public mainstream.

If you ran a PGA Tour event, would you rather have Woods in your field, or all 12 of the guys currently ahead of him in the Official World Golf Ranking? It’s a hypothetical you may not consider to be therapeutical.

“I would take Woods over the other 12,” said Peter DeYoung, the former tournament director at the Western Open.

“Interesting question,” said Clair Peterson, who has done amazing things while overseeing the John Deere Classic since 2002. “Having Tiger here would be huge, bringing the story full-circle from when we gave him his third professional start in 1996 and he led through three rounds. Everyone in town has felt a part of his story since and have been waiting for him to return.”

There’s a lot to digest in that reply. Perhaps Woods owes the John Deere more than just a Dear John.

The problem, if there is one, is that Woods has made minimal changes to his schedule over the years, and there’s no reason to believe he’ll blow up the formula any time soon. He has periodically added starts to shake off rust, reach the Tour’s 15-event minimum or prepare for an upcoming major, the most recent example occurring last March at Innisbrook Resort.

When Woods announced he was coming to the Tampa Bay area, officials scrambled to find 10,000 extra parking spots, 90 more portable toilets and another 30 shuttle buses. They don’t do that kind of stuff when Jordan Spieth shows up. “Things have changed so much over the last 30 years with the addition of skyboxes and [vastly increased] corporate presence,” DeYoung said. “Having Tiger Woods in your field grows those dollars exponentially.

“You can do all the studies you want, but Tiger Woods moves the
needle. Always has, always will.”

None of this qualifies as breaking news, but it does speak volumes about the inability of young stars such as Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas to widen pro golf’s fan base. The Tour’s TV ratings were dismally low in 2016 and 2017, when Woods was barely active. Lousy TV numbers lead to unhappy title sponsors, who are required to account for a significant percentage of the adjacent advertising spots and aren’t thrilled when fewer people see them.

Then there’s the charity money. Anyone who watches pro golf knows how the Tour goes to outrageous lengths to produce (and promote) its charitable contributions. Those donations are accounted for primarily by tournament revenue – ticket sales, merchandise, etc. If you want to make Camp Ponte Vedra happy, you’d do well to show a modest increase in that category each and every year.

Torrey Pines is one of the lucky ones. Woods’ enormous popularity has perpetuated a stratification of Tour events, a greater division of the haves and have-nots, which can only be considered unhealthy as it relates to the overall product. The John Deere Classic and Waste Management Phoenix Open are among the few tournaments that have continued to prosper despite not having Woods as a draw.

Last week’s gathering in Palm Springs and the Tour stop in Fort Worth, however, are longstanding, non-Tiger events that have struggled with title sponsorship. There are plenty of others, a few of which have disappeared from the schedule altogether. The advent of the FedEx Cup in 2007 and its subsequent playoff series hasn’t done the have-nots any favors.

The more money the top players make, the fewer tournaments they’re likely to enter, but if Dustin Johnson skipped the Honda Classic, nobody would care. If Woods didn’t show up, all hell would break loose. Last year proved that Tigermania remains an unconditional phenomenon, oblivious not only to his actual performance, but all of the guys whom he’s trying to beat.

You could say he’s in the business of winning tournaments, not making them healthier. And a lot of smart people would say it’s not always easy to tell the difference.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com