Game will continue to prosper despite Tiger's fall
Published 05/01/2010 | 05:00
IT'S the end of an era in golf ... but not the end of the world. Ultimately, the sport will benefit from the spectacular fall from grace of its greatest player, Tiger Woods.
Many within golf -- players, administrators and media alike -- fell for the bright shining lie perpetrated by Tiger and his marketers.
Elin Woods and her children, Sam (two) and Charlie (10 months) certainly are not the only ones who feel betrayed. Rarely has the folly of making idols of those who excel at sport been so cruelly exposed.
The many seamy, salacious and dismaying headlines stirred by Woods' off-course compulsions have been deeply embarrassing for a game which places so much stock on moral virtue.
Yet, in the long term, this sorry episode will be good for golf. For a start, the unhealthy domination Tiger used to exercise over his sport is at an end.
It used be galling to see the authorities take no issue, in public at least, with his club-throwing, cursing and spitting on the golf course. Now his pedestal has crumbled, Woods won't find officialdom so craven in future.
The power Tiger wielded over tours and tournaments alike was founded on his ability to draw TV viewers, attract sponsors and generate hard cash.
Yet his prowess as the most potent money magnet in sport has been hamstrung by recent events, with one story emanating from Wall Street during the festive season suggesting Tiger's transgressions contributed to a $12bn slump in the share value of the companies which sponsor him.
So there were few eyebrows raised as Accenture and AT&T, Gillette and Gatorade axed the World No 1 ... leaving Nike alone among Tiger's sponsors in expressing complete loyalty to the beleaguered star.
Will TV viewers, especially females, hit the 'off' switch when Woods appears on screen in future? If Tiger's infidelity depresses TV ratings in the long term, might the US networks and tournament sponsors play even harder to get, when in negotiation with the PGA Tour?
Has the golden goose of modern golf been stuffed? Is Sugar Daddy dead?
One suspects not. A couple of Major titles this year (at Pebble Beach and St Andrews perhaps) will make watching Tiger Woods more compelling than ever.
That'll be a shame, as US Tour players have become pampered, precious and grossly overpaid in the hyper-inflationary Tiger era.
Since Woods arrived on the PGA Tour in 1996, prize money has quadrupled from $70m per annum to $278m. As a result, 91 players earned $1m-plus on Tour in 2009, compared with nine just 13 years ago.
Sixty-two members of that 'millionaires club' didn't win in 2009, while 15 of the 38 who earned $2m or more in the past season failed to register a victory on Tour.
Most prominent was Jim Furyk, the super-consistent Ryder Cup star, who finished seventh in the US Money List with $3.946m banked despite not winning an 'official' event -- Tiger's year-ending Chevron World Challenge doesn't count.
In just 23 outings on the US Tour in 2009, Furyk amassed nearly $200,000 more than the legendary Lee Trevino won in his entire career. And that figure doesn't include the $1.5m Furyk took for finishing fourth in the final FedEx Cup standings.
At least Furyk's a proven winner. Briny Baird hasn't won once in nine years on Tour but still has earned $10.784m, putting him ahead of eight-times Major champion Tom Watson in the all-time US Career Money List. Ludicrous!
Meanwhile, Justin Rose, Boo Weekley, Bob Estes, Nick O'Hern, Greg Chalmers, Scott Piercy and Kevin Streelman were among those who needed just a couple of modest top-10 finishes last season to have $1m-plus in the bank.
The PGA likes to say of its members: "These guys are good!" But it's unhealthy for mediocrity to yield such rich rewards.
Leading US players are so well cosseted in their homeland, few feel any inclination to spread golf's gospel abroad. Just four of the top-10 Americans on the 2009 Money List -- Tiger, Phil Mickelson, Sean O'Hair and Brian Gay -- went to Shanghai for the 2009 HSBC Champions, despite its new status as a World Championship event.
Is it any wonder sponsors are reluctant to stage the so-called WGCs outside the United States?
Also, 11 US players declined an invitation to represent their country at November's Omega World Cup before Nick Watney agreed to pick up the gauntlet at Mission Hills.
Might this explain why the World Cup will shortly become a biennial event, with the purse doubled (from the $1.7m shared this year by Italy's magnificent Molinari brothers) in an effort to lure higher-ranked players?
Neither prize money nor the honour of representing one's country is enough at present to lure many top players out of the comfort zone. With every respect to the PGA Tour, these guys have it too good.
Even if the PGA Tour suffered a 25pc reduction in prize money across the board, offering an average $5m purse in just 40 tournaments each year, little real hardship would be created for players. Heaven knows, a few more might feel hungry enough to travel abroad and help spread the gospel of golf.
In fairness, Tiger transformed golf into a sport of global appeal, effectively dragging it out of the country club and into the Olympic arena. This year, for example, we saw the first Asian-born winner at a men's Major (Korea's YE Yang at the PGA), while players from six continents -- Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and North and South America -- won on the US Tour.
Golf is too expensive and time-consuming to ever be as accessible to the world's masses as, say, basketball or soccer. However, the exclusion of individuals because of their colour (if not their gender!) is no longer acceptable, for which Woods, the game's greatest player, can take a bow.
While Tiger's carefully crafted public image has been shattered, the progress his sport has made socially during his 13 years as a professional cannot be undone.
His own earning potential will suffer and, one suspects, Tiger will have to pay heavily for his transgressions in the divorce court.
However, Woods won't go hungry. Indeed, he could give all his sponsors a break and resume (probably in time for April's Masters) with no branding at all on his person or his golf bag.
Tiger will find it tough on his return. Many former cheerleaders will, at best, look on in mute silence. While he defied agonising physical handicap to win the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines, morally Woods won't have a leg to stand on this time, not even one.
It's a massive challenge but one he's likely to relish.
Those Woods betrayed at least can take satisfaction from watching a fellow mortal scrapping for greatness and not the anodyne, false idol of old.
Honesty is the key to Tiger's salvation, while golf itself will trundle inexorably on.
We're about to learn that the game really is bigger than any individual.