Tiger is great for ratings – but he'll never grow the game the way Palmer did
I will preface this with, as anyone who knows me will attest, I am not, nor have I ever been, a Tiger Woods fan.
My ambivalence started the year he debuted on the PGA Tour when he casually skipped the Haskins dinner given in honour of the Top Collegiate Player of The Year. He lost me then, and to date has never gotten me back.
That being said, I’m willing to forgive the past and look forward to the future – the future of the game of golf, that is, something I care passionately about.
Regardless if he wins again, Tiger’s mark on being one of, if not the greatest golfer of all time is set in stone. Unlike Arnold Palmer, this week’s tournament namesake, who not only is revered for his athletic prowess but also his respect for the everyman, what is not set in stone is Tiger’s willingness to continuously give back and grow the game at the grass-roots level.
While many are quick to say how he’s been so great for the game and its growth, the numbers point otherwise. The participation rate has not changed over the course of the last 20 years that he has been playing the PGA Tour, in fact it is now in decline. He has had a tremendous effect on professional purses and sponsorship money but that has actually translated into higher green fee and ticket prices for the average golfer.
But now in this rebirth of the kinder, friendlier, willing-to-play-where-he-hasn’t-before Tiger, there is hopefully an opportunity to turn the interest in watching him play into actual growth of the game in participation levels.
The fact is, when Tiger plays people pay attention. The numbers speak for themselves, at the Honda Classic, already a well-established fixture on the PGA Tour, ticket sales were already up five percent over 2017, jumped an incredible 25 per cent the Friday Tiger committed.
Last week’s Valspar Championship really benefitted with Tiger’s first appearance and with him in contention on Sunday the TV viewership scored a 5.0, up more than 100 per cent from 2017 and a number not seen for golf since 2013, the last time Tiger was winning.
Interestingly enough, here at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a tournament in honour of the man who perhaps did more to grow the grass-roots game than any other golfer, Tiger’s attendance hasn’t dramatically grown the gate. The tournament already had a stellar field with other crowd favourites – Thomas, Fowler, McIlroy, Day, Watson and Els to name a few. Even with Mr Palmer no longer here in person, his legacy to supporting the game lives on in the tournament’s loyal patrons.
But there is a perceivable difference to the atmosphere here this year. A buzz and anticipation, that perhaps Tiger can claim his ninth title at this tournament. It’s his first appearance since 2013, and with his performance the last few weeks that doesn’t seem like an unreasonable result.
Should he win this week, the TV ratings for the Masters will be astronomical for a golf tournament, tickets already the most expensive of almost any sport on the secondary market will easily exceed mortgage payments and media coverage will be 24/7 even on non-sports outlets. All those are a given.
But perhaps the most important takeaway, win, place or miss the cut this week, is not what the fans take away from watching Tiger play, but what Tiger hopefully now takes away from Mr Palmer’s tireless give back to the game – even when he could no longer be in contention.
That never wavering commitment to his fans, always signing legible autographs, personally interacting with the spectators, playing in places that perhaps didn’t quite suit his game to give everyone a chance to see his flair, knowing the importance that his appearance at an event meant so much to raising additional charitable dollars.
He would look fans in the eye when he shook hands to make them feel like an old friend, being seen around Bay Hill every day playing the game he adored and gave his life so much meaning and friendship.
If the new Tiger is in fact a true transformation, I’m hoping that his passion for the game starts to transcend titles and money and encourages the millions of his fans that love to watch him play, that playing the game itself is reward enough as it was for Mr Palmer.