Where Tiger goes the viewers are certain to follow
World No 1's Major hunt is likely to remain golf's big story for some time, writes Dermot Gilleece
Less than two months from his 38th birthday, Tiger Woods remains the most commanding figure in televised golf. Which explains why he is being paid a reported $3 million to spearhead the inaugural Turkish Airlines Open, starting at Belek's Montgomerie Maxx Royal Resort next Thursday.
Any doubts about his enduring appeal are removed by statistics for final-round coverage of the four Major championships since the cable era began in the US in 1981. The highest-rated Masters (14.1) is for Woods' first Augusta win in 1997; he tops the Open Championship ratings for his breakthrough victory at St Andrews in 2000 (6.4) and he does the same for his PGA triumph at Valhalla a month later (8.8).
The only Major which he fails to totally dominate is the US Open. Here, with a viewing rating of 8.9 for his win over Phil Mickelson at Bethpage Black in 2002, he is forced to share the honours with the 1981 triumph by Australia's David Graham at iconic Merion.
Against this background, last week's cancellation of Woods' lucrative EA Sports contract would suggest that computer games and television viewing are very different markets.
"Those figures don't surprise me," said Andy North, the two-time US Open champion who is a leading analyst with ESPN. "Tiger is unquestionably television's most valuable asset from the golf business. With ratings, you're tempted to think of events like Jack Nicklaus winning the 1986 Masters, but there wasn't much golf on TV prior to the mid-1990s. Nowadays, pretty much every shot that's hit is there, which dilutes the ratings dramatically."
North went on: "The really magnetic thing about Tiger on TV is that he has people wondering what's going to happen next. And there's a section of the viewing audience that want to see him fail, to see him screw up, just like people watch Nascar for car crashes.
"I'm reminded of Johnny Miller [NBC's golf anchor] and a poll a few years ago when people were asked to vote on their favourite announcer and their least favourite announcer. When the results were announced, Miller was number one in both polls. That's TV. Guys can be either loved or hated but the important thing is that people watch them."
Woods has remained in Asia since the made-for-television exhibition match he lost to Rory McIlroy at Mission Hills, China, last Monday. But the Holywood star won't be in Turkey. His guaranteed reward from the current, limited-field HSBC Champions event will secure his presence in Europe's season finale in Dubai next week. And he's ending his tournament year in Woods' World Challenge at Sherwood CC, California, on December 5 to 8.
By his own admission, Woods has never looked at statistics, like the one which tells us that in September, clubhead speed of 118.58mph ranked him a modest 26th on the PGA Tour. The one which means most in his golfing life requires no study. He has lived with it since he was a lad entering his teens, when famously pinning Nicklaus' 18 Majors on his bedroom wall.
Yet he continues to react as if his pursuit of the all-time record was a media creation. "I've been out here for the better part of 17 years and it's one of those things I've been asked a lot about," he said. "So far over the course of my career, I think I've done a pretty good job of what I've been able to win over the years. And my career's not done yet." Can he understand the public's fascination with the issue? "I'd probably be the wrong person to ask because I'm part of the question," came the coy reply. "The wins fall where they fall. After it's all said and done, you can look back and have a better picture of it."
Mired on 14 since the 2008 US Open, Woods will be returning next season to three Major venues where he has already tasted success – Augusta National, Royal Liverpool for the Open Championship and Valhalla for the PGA. And Pinehurst No 2, where the US Open returns, will be remembered for his spirited challenges behind Payne Stewart in 1999 and Michael Campbell in 2005.
Imagine the audience if, somewhere down the line, he happens to be heading for an 18th or 19th Major triumph! "That would be a pretty astounding number, an unbelievable rating," said North, "especially if there were two or three name-guys he was aiming to beat and it happened in really special circumstances, like the 2020 Open at St Andrews."
Nicklaus expressed a colder, more pragmatic view to writer Jaime Diaz in the current issue of Golf Digest Ireland. "Every tournament he (Tiger) plays now, it's five years since he won a Major," he said. "That was never an issue for me because no one was counting. But it's taken a totally different focus for Tiger. You get tired of the question and it's just something that pretty soon starts eating at you. He has that thought every time he plays and he's not able to discard it."
The Bear then added: "My guess is that his priority for the next couple or three years will be to break my record. Frankly, I still think he's going to break it." One imagines Nicklaus forcing himself to think this way, a bit like he conditioned his mind during his competitive days to expect a rival to hole every putt. But he wouldn't be human if he didn't secretly hope for the pretender to fail.
In this context, what sort of Woods will we see this week on his return to competitive action since the Presidents Cup on October 6? Paul Azinger, who captained the US to Ryder Cup glory in 2008 despite the absence of an injured Tiger, sees very clear differences from the Woods of old. "He's still going to win tournaments because he's just so good," said Azinger. "But he's getting edgy in Majors and it's taking its toll.
"At the end of their careers, we saw the tension in (Tom) Watson's face, even in Nicklaus'. Now in Majors, you can see the burden written on Tiger's face. I no longer see that intense calmness you sense in a confident man."
Meanwhile, Woods has been more exercised recently with the seemingly intractable issue of slow play, which received much attention during the US Open at Merion last June and is being given another USGA airing at a symposium later this month.
He and McIlroy delighted in recounting at Mission Hills how it had taken them just four-and-a-half hours to play a friendly 36 holes together at The Medalist Club in South Florida last spring. And using a buggy on the same course, Woods claimed: "On my own, I've played 18 holes in under an hour. No problem."
In the context of the upcoming USGA symposium, he went on: "At Tour level it's easy to fix: just start fining guys." He then showed unusual insight for a tournament professional when broadening his perspective. "At the grassroots, people just aren't educated about the pace of play, which has gotten slower over the years," he said with crushing simplicity.
Tournament golf still needs El Tigre, whether to electrify the final rounds of Major championships or to enlighten the game's administrators on the patently obvious. Or, in his Turkish venture, to guarantee the crowds, whether in front of TV sets or at the fairway ropes.
Which remains fundamental to a successful event.