Saturday 23 November 2019

Televised golf badly needs a consistent McIlroy to win back viewers

'Rory McIlroy currently finds himself an observer as TV audiences in the US continue to tumble.' Photo: Drew Hallowell/Getty Images
'Rory McIlroy currently finds himself an observer as TV audiences in the US continue to tumble.' Photo: Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

From being hailed as a potential saviour of television ratings for golf in the US, Rory McIlroy currently finds himself a strangely ineffectual observer as audiences continue to tumble. Not even the dramatic climax to last Sunday's Northern Trust Open could alter a worrying trend.

In terms of spectacular impact, it would have been difficult to fault the play-off shots from Dustin Johnson in beating Jordan Spieth. A huge drive on the treacherous 467-yard 18th carried 310 yards downwind over water, to be followed by an 88-yard lob-wedge to four feet from the hole for a decisive birdie.

As a death-or-glory effort, it bore comparison with Tiger Woods on the par-five 72nd hole of the 2000 Canadian Open at Glen Abbey. That was where El Tigre set up a winning birdie by hitting an astonishing six-iron bunker recovery of 218 yards over water to the back fringe of the green.

Johnson's problem, even as world number one, is that transient fans are impressed more by personality than technical brilliance. Despite last weekend's heroics, his game lacks the explosiveness of Woods, whose appeal could transcend his own sport. And as the Bard might say, the inventors of Hollywood are of a most select and generous chief in the matter of star appeal.

That's McIlroy's strength. Johnny Miller observed back in 2014: "Rory's a guy who's got it. He was born to win. He just needs to keep doing what he was doing as a kid."

We talked during Masters week at Augusta National at a time when commentators sought a credible successor to Woods. Miller's observation that "lack of consistency deprived me of the ability to dominate tournament golf, and Rory has the same problem," adopts a chilling resonance in the context of recent form.

"There's a huge opening for somebody who can play great golf, and I believe Rory's the player to fill it. I believe he has more talent than anybody on tour. He has more horse-power than anybody in golf."

Such observations, however, have to be seen against the background of a downward trend in television audiences which was evident even with Woods at the peak of his formidable powers. It was happening in 2000, when the great one was in the process of capturing three legs in what became the Tiger Slam.

Remarkably, Woods was mentioned only once in the top 10 list of record ­viewing figures for the Sunday telecast of golf tournaments up to that point. And that was down in fifth place.

It read: 1 1971 Bing Crosby Pro-Am (19.2 million viewers and won by Tom Shaw); 2 1976 Phoenix Open (16.5: Bob Gilder); 3 1975 Bing Crosby (14.7: Gene Littler); 4 1973 Bob Hope Classic (14.6: Arnold Palmer); 5 1997 US Masters (14.1: Woods); 6 1971 Bob Hope (13.9: Palmer); 7 1973 Bing Crosby (13.7: Jack Nicklaus); 8 1972 Bing Crosby (13.1: Nicklaus); 9 1977 Bing Crosby (12.8: Tom Watson); 10 1976 Bing Crosby (12.6: Ben Crenshaw).

As can be seen, the 1970s was a golden era for televised golf in the US, especially in springtime. In fact the 1997 Masters was the only tournament from the 1990s to make the top 20 telecasts. One can only imagine what the figures for the ­succeeding decade would have been had Woods not been around given that when he was missing from tournaments for whatever reason ratings dropped by as much as 50 per cent in some cases.

So, players with obvious star quality clearly matter, as we saw three months ago when, for the first time since 1994, Woods and Phil Mickelson both missed the US Open at Erin Hills. And with McIlroy, Johnson and Jason Day all missing the cut, the final round on Fox Sports had the worst viewing figures in 29 years. Which must have had Fox pondering the 12 years still to run in their expensive contract with the USGA.

Meanwhile, according to Sports Media Watch, figures for the final round of the Masters last April were 11 per cent lower than last year and 21 per cent down on 2015. They were the worst since 2004. Good weather for potential viewers elsewhere in the US could have been a factor, but it was generally accepted that having two Europeans, Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose, battling for the title was the real problem.

Yet Greg Norman illustrated that Americans cannot be accused of jingoism in choosing their sporting heroes. Viewing figures for the recent PGA Championship triumph by Kentucky's Justin Thomas, were down eight per cent on last year and down 29 per cent on 2015. And the Open Championship in which Spieth rallied magnificently, was also down.

Only the women's Solheim Cup seemed to buck the trend, with the highest ­figures in 10 years viewing the event on the ­magnificent Pete Dye-designed Des Moines G and CC layout in Iowa.

Even if everything in tournament golf were perfect, viewing figures would probably still be dropping, just like in other sports. One factor is that modern technology offers viewing options other than traditional broadcasts on television.

Naturally, when researching an ­American subject of this nature, you're going to be swamped with statistics. And an especially disturbing one for the PGA Tour is that the average age of its television viewers climbed from 59 in 2006 to 64 in 2016.

Still, with so much money involved, the battle for viewers is clearly worth the fight. Which means delivering a clean-cut hero with star appeal. And with Johnson admitting sheepishly after his Northern Trust triumph - "That was a weak [celebratory] fist-pump" - you sense he's not the one, no more than the bland Mr Spieth.

As Miller declared on that April day in Augusta, McIlroy can be the man. With his public appeal reflected in mouth-­watering contracts for clothes and playing ­equipment, all he needs is consistent form to complete an irresistible package.

A revived TV audience awaits.

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