News & Opinion

Riding the wave on Sea of Hyperbole

What if Tiger Woods hadn’t attempted a comeback? Here’s a guy in his early 40s, with two young kids, a house worth more than $50 million and a surgically-repaired body stuck in the perpetual-rehab cycle. Fame has turned its back on him several times, leaving one of the world’s richest and most influential athletes with a tainted legacy and plenty of reasons to wonder.

Is returning to competitive golf really worth it? Does the possibility of yet another injury make the risk greater than the reward? It’s easy to answer those questions now, but 16 months ago, there certainly were no guarantees. And if it’s a bit silly to label Woods’ resurgence as the greatest comeback in sports history, given what Ben Hogan survived in February 1949 and the depth of his accomplishments afterward, then it’s easy to rationalize this heavily populated exodus to the Sea of Hyperbole.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods gives golf another reason to feel good about itself.

Woods means more to his sport than any athlete on earth. The magnitude of his mere presence easily surpasses that of basketball’s LeBron James or soccer’s Cristiano Ronaldo, two brilliant performers who don’t come close to carrying their games the way Woods carries pro golf. A lot of that obviously has to do with the man himself: his remarkable success in pressure situations, his lengthy stretch of dominance, and of course, his mainstream appeal.

Unfortunately, his importance is magnified by golf’s inability to transcend its core audience unless Woods is involved. It may not seem like a big deal now, but at some point in the not-so-distant future, the game needs to generate at least modest growth without relying on its superstar to do all the heavy lifting.

Remember Bobby Fischer? He not only put chess on the map, he vaulted it onto the covers of Time and Life, the pre-eminent national magazines of the day. His “Match of the Century” against Boris Spassky in 1972 was televised during prime time in the United States, and when Fischer thrashed Spassky to end decades of Russian dominance, he was hailed as a conquering hero, with the Cold War still at a rapid boil.

Within months, the U.S. Chess Federation doubled its membership. Fischer appeared on a Bob Hope TV special and landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but the chess boom ended almost as quickly as it commenced. Fischer’s nutty behavior played a huge role in the decline, but the lack of a legitimate follow-up act sent those from the Land of the Short Attention Span in another direction.

Comparing golf to chess is almost as wacky as the American who mastered it, but that doesn’t make the point an invalid one. In a Tigerless world, our game will need to widen its fan base and sustain traction as something other than a niche alternative to pro tennis or auto racing. Otherwise, it must accept status as an acquired taste prone to economic dips and cultural detachment.

Easier said than done. Especially when one guy has multiplied prize money exponentially and remains singlehandedly responsible for huge leaps in TV ratings. In its most recent report, the National Golf Foundation said Woods accounted for a 30-percent increase in viewership last season, although there were years when he doubled the size of an audience on a regular basis.

“He was a dominant athlete in a very healthy economy,” said NGF chief business officer Greg Nathan, referring to the early 2000s. “The stock market was [thriving], property values were high, all signs were positive before the [2007-09] recession. Tiger’s rise to prominence certainly had an impact on [recreational] participation, but there were a lot of factors involved.

“He made golf cool with the broadest demographic, but if Frank Sinatra was a really popular singer, he didn’t make people more likely to sing. Except maybe in the shower.”

The NGF compiles a lot of valuable data, to be used mostly by those in the golf business – club manufacturers, course-management firms, anybody with a stake in the industry – which makes it a marketing-friendly operation. Measuring Woods’ effect by counting the number of rounds played at the local muni is to lose sight of his greatest contribution: he takes the game to people whom no other current player could possibly reach.

We call it growth. Without the potential to expand its boundaries, every sport must deal with the notion that being stuck in neutral is the same as moving in reverse. There’s no better example of that fact than in women’s golf. Minimal star power. A continuing influx of Asian players and a subsequent lack of identity in the eyes of many American golf fans.

Very little network-TV exposure. A cold shoulder from the weekend highlight shows. Male or female, ESPN barely covers golf these days, having all but recast itself as a de facto wing of the Tiger Woods Fan Club. Pom-pom journalism? It’s part of the world we live in, and no famous sportsman since Muhammad Ali has elicited more attention (and reaction) than the 2019 Masters champion.

As Nathan pointed out, Woods made golf cool. And in returning to the game as a changed man, his priorities apparently in order and his skills hardly diminished, he has made it relevant again. My 18-year-old daughter couldn’t care less about the sport that helps cover the cost of her college tuition, yet she texted me several times over Masters weekend, giddy about Woods’ surge up the leaderboard, engrossed in the buzz like so many others who aren’t sure which end of the club to hold.

He got it done, of course, claiming that elusive 15th major, leading to the possibility that we won’t see a whole lot of him this summer. Woods skipped this week’s gathering in Charlotte, one of his favorite PGA Tour stops over the years, for unspecified reasons. Looking at the rest of the schedule, there’s a good chance he’ll play in just five more tournaments before the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Even to himself, much less anyone else, Woods has almost nothing left to prove. He came, he saw, he conquered. Then he stumbled and conquered again. It really is a beautiful thing, no matter how irritating all the fuss can get. Like many seasoned skeptics who double as serious golf fans, I wanted validation before dipping a toe into the Sea of Hyperbole. I needed to see the guy win another major, perform like his old self and remind me that it’s a sin to take greatness for granted.

It’s almost impossible to do that now.

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