Golf has an Image Problem

Brooks Koepka has won three majors in just over a year. (Wikimedia Commons)

It has been several years since Tiger Woods has been at his best, and yet that is all anyone can seem to talk about when men’s golf is brought up. Woods dominated the game for the better part of a decade before his back injuries. Since then, we have seen flashes of the old Tiger, but the man that many thought would topple Jack Nicklaus has never truly returned.

In his stead, there has been a group of new challengers to step into the top spot for golf. First it was Rory McIlroy. Then Jordan Speith took his turn. Jason Day followed him. Now Dustin Johnson is atop the men’s golf world. Those four men have finished atop the PGA rankings in the four years since Woods suffered his injury.

The problem is, none of them have even come close to replacing Tiger. There has been no extended period of dominance, larger than life persona or general awareness to elevate golf to the level of popularity it reached when Woods was at his best. Casual fans do not know the top athletes in the sport.

Brooks Koepka, who won last week’s PGA Championship, admitted most people do not recognize him. In addition to winning the PGA Championship, Koepka also capture the previous two US Opens. He became the first player since 2001 to win both the PGA Championship and the US Open in the same season. The last person to do it was none other than Tiger Woods.

Without a doubt, Koepka is a star in the making. At 28, he currently sits second in the world in the PGA rankings, behind only Johnson. Still, golf is still totally Tiger-centric. In preparing for this post, I searched Koepka’s name on Google. Two of the three top suggested articles were actually about Woods, with the headlines failing to mention Koepka. CBS Sports PR issued a press release last Monday saying the final day of the PGA Championship saw the highest ratings since 2009, including a 69 percent increase over last year. Just to note, Woods made an incredible run to finish second this year, two strokes behind Koepka. Coincidence? Yeah, I don’t think so either.

Additionally, Don Yaeger of Forbes detailed in his great article the clear slant the media takes when covering golf and how it always revolves around Tiger. He pointed out the recent coverage was all about how close Tiger came, rather than Koepka winning again.

At the time of publication, Woods is the 26th ranked men’s golfer in the world. (Wikimedia Commons)

Now, part of it is that Tiger is an iconic figure who has always been fun to watch. His endorsement deals placed him on a national scale. More often than not, people love dominance. They might not always recognize it, but dominance in the sports world draws our attention. With the Warriors in the NBA, Alabama in college football, the Patriots in the NFL, UConn in college basketball, we tune in to witness the dominance and for the chance to see Goliath defeated. It makes for a great story.

Woods has managed to work himself onto the other side of that narrative now. For so long, he dominated. Now he continues to struggle his way back to the top. He hasn’t won a major in 10 years. He has gone from being Goliath to one of the potentially great comeback stories if can ever complete it. It seemed inevitable that Tiger would topple Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors for such a long time. Obvious it is a lot less clear now. If he were to somehow claw himself back into the conversation, it would truly be an amazing feat.

The story of Tiger Woods is not a bad thing for men’s golf. It draws in casual fans and causes massive boosts to television ratings. I know this because I fall into the same category. Outside of the Masters, I tend to watch or follow very little golf if Woods is not competing.

However, and I’ve said it before, the sport relies much too heavily on Woods being involved. Golf has had a hard time moving on from the talking point of Tiger’s dominance. Until someone can truly wrestle that mantle away from Woods, golf will never be able to move on.


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