In 2008 it was an all-too-common sight. Late afternoon on a Sunday, the sun beginning to set behind the trees. The stretched shadow of a man in a red top strolling down the back nine under the watchful gaze of thousands of star-struck fans.
Tiger Woods at his majestic best.
Fast forward ten years and that picture seemed a tragic, distant memory. Part of a staggering era of sporting dominance that will never happen again in golf. While that level of domination will never return, the red top and the splendid Sunday stroll are back.
Golf has– perhaps surprisingly– been in superb shape in Woods’ absence. A plethora of talented youngsters have blown onto the scene, carving up courses in new and unique ways. Dustin Johnson and Jordon Spieth lead the cast, supported by fresh-faced understudies Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm. These four, supported by a talented ensemble, are putting on quite a show.
But they have been missing the talismanic showstopper.
The demise and revival of Tiger Woods
For all their success, there has been no dominant leader. For a sport to succeed in the baying eyes of the public, it needs to have a recognisable figure paving the way. While the days of Tiger Woods literally leading the pack are long behind him, the legacy he has left means that he remains that figurehead. Put quite simply, Tiger Woods transcends golf.
After all, it has been a long time since he has been a serious contender on the PGA circuit. It was four years ago that he won his last Tour event and nearly a decade since his last Major. In that time he’s also gone through a messy public sex scandal and subsequent divorce. A series of back injuries has halted any chance of a successful comeback as Woods faded from the sport.
To add insult to injury, footage was released by police last year of him bleary-eyed and mumbling following his arrest for driving under the influence. A seemingly almighty fall from grace.
Yet with a few successful swings of the putter, all of that has simply gone away. This year Woods has returned to the PGA Tour and, to the surprise of many, it is going rather well.
A tip of the cap.
And a BIG smile. 😀
Tiger’s 71-footer from multiple angles. pic.twitter.com/dYSYD5IUM3
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) March 15, 2018
For two weekends in a row now, Tiger Woods has been in contention on Sunday, strolling down the fairway in his favourite red top.
At the Valspar Championship, Woods finished tied second behind Paul Casey. Casey’s victory, his first since 2009 on the PGA Tour, was almost immediately forgotten as every news outlet focused its attention on Woods’ resurgence.
A week later and he was at it again. This time he finished tied fifth, eight strokes behind a rampant Rory McIlroy– himself on the comeback from injury. Unsurprisingly, it was Woods who took the lions share of the media attention.
It is not a shock that Woods stole the headlines given his unbreakable popularity. NBC announced that the viewing figures for the final day of the Valspar Championship had increased by 190 percent on the previous year. In addition, day three’s coverage was the most viewed PGA Tour third day since 2006.
Television networks need Tiger Woods now– but golf needs him for its future.
For golf to flourish moving forward, it needs Woods to provide a platform for the new generation to demonstrate their capabilities. What is maybe most important about this fortnight is that Woods has not actually won. Twice he has finished in the top five but ultimately he has been outplayed.
Fundamentally, this is the role that he must now play. He is the bait to reel in the audience while the rest of the Tour proves its value. Tiger’s fellow competitors need him playing the course on Sunday as much as the fans. But if he dominates or disappears then the sport falls into crisis.
Most PGA Tour wins by players currently under age 45:
Tiger overall – 79
Tiger WGCs – 18
Dustin Johnson – 17
Tiger in Florida – 16
Tiger majors – 14
Tiger in California – 14
Rory McIlroy – 13
Tiger in Ohio -13
Adam Scott – 13
Zach Johnson – 12#TigerReturns
— Justin Ray (@JustinRayGC) January 24, 2018
Golf has already seen what happens when its star attraction suddenly leaves the sport. For years it has been waning, struggling to attract or engage a fresh audience. That is not a path it wants to stumble down against.
On the other hand, a Tiger Woods domination will also lead to an uncertain future. Fans will, rightly or wrongly, assume that the rest of the PGA are not worthy of their time if they cannot compete with an ageing Woods. This is the nervous future facing tennis with Roger Federer’s 2017 resurgence and Woods’ domination would follow the same pattern.
So golf needs Tiger Woods desperately, but not the Tiger Woods of old. Golf needs a new Tiger Woods. It needs a Tiger Woods that challenges– and wins occasionally. But mostly it needs a Tiger Woods that opens the public’s eyes to the talent of the new generation– the generation that will live on long after Tiger hands up his driver.
Image by: Keith Allison/flickr