Golf has an Image Problem

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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.

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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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Golf needs a new poster boy

The big four sports don’t really need to have huge stars to draw in viewers and fans. US soccer manages to bring in international stars to draw some major attention. Men’s tennis has its big four of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Rodger Federer. Women’s tennis has Serena Williams. Men’s golf has…wait, I don’t really know who it has any more.

Tiger Woods
Tiger dominated golf in the 2000s, holding the title of world’s number one for a record 683 weeks total.

Golf thrived in times when it was being dominated by one man, one poster boy if you will. All throughout history, there has been one man to dominate the headlines, and the competition. It started way back in 1914, when Walter Hagen won 45 events in a 23 year span. Then in the late 30s Sam Snead he won an unprecedented number of PGA tour events with 82, a mark that still stands today. He, and later Ben Hogan, dominated golf until about the 1950s. It continued with Arnie Palmer piling up wins from the mid 50s to the mid 60s until another golf legend stole the show by the name of Jack Nicklaus. Nicklaus won 18 majors during his storied career, which remains the most of any golfer ever. Nicklaus earned his last win in 1986, by which time, the golfing community was getting to know Steve Norman, who ranked as the number one golfer in the world for a then record 331 weeks during the late 80s and early 90s. There was some back and forth during the late 1990s as a couple of men fought for supremacy. Eventually, Tiger Woods emerged from the pack and simply dominated golf from the turn of the century until about 2010.

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McIlory has spent time bouncing between being number one and being all but forgotten.

Since about 2010 though, golf has searched for a new king. Lee Westwood took his brief turn at the top. Luke Donaldson and Rory McIlory traded on and off for a number of years. Then it seemed like McIlroy was the true heir until a rash of injuries kept him from competing for some time. Tiger even returned for a one-year stay at the top before falling way down the rankings. The world was ready to crown Jordan Spieth it’s next hero after his clutch win at the Masters this year but he arrived at the Fed Ex Cup Playoffs and completely fell apart, relinquishing his number one ranking to McIlroy again.

So now, golf is still searching for a new face of the sport. And it is essential that it finds one. Obviously, all of the invested golf fans will continue to watch no matter what but most casual fans will not tune in unless a big name is playing. The popularity of golf in the US was through the roof when Tiger dominated the fairways. He brought the casual fan in to watch what amazing thing the best golfer in the world would do next. Since Tiger’s extreme decline following 2013, golf has tried to hang on to him as its way of keeping people interested. All coverage begins and ends with Woods because he will draw in the casual fans. But as Tiger continues to fade, that effect continues to wear off.

Golf needs a new talisman for fans to gather around and follow. I’m not saying that you need one person to win every event, even Tiger didn’t do that, but you need someone who wins a majority of them. Some of the best storylines in golf following the turn of the century occurred when someone knocked off Tiger or Woods won in spectacular fashion. It created excitement among fans and genuine interest for even the casual golf fan.

As much as sports strive for parity so that we can witness different champions come and go on a regular basis, golf simply does not follow that format. It thrives off of having a king at the top and all of the challengers attempting to knock him off. Until golf finds its new king, it could be in for a rough time.

It is time to move on from Tiger

He ruled golf for over a decade. He notched the second most wins in golf history. He bested the competition in the second most majors ever. Tiger Woods was transcendent for the game of golf and potentially the greatest golfer to ever live.

However, his prime is over. The fist pump long gone. The wins have all stopped coming for Tiger. We all knew it would happen eventually and maybe we didn’t want it to come but it has most certainly arrived.

Tiger WoodsBut we haven’t embraced it. Many in the sports world are still clinging to the notion that he can still do it. ESPN regularly reports on Woods and tracks his play incessantly. Every commercial on still advertises Tiger as part of the main event. The media still hounds him and treats him as the king of his sport.

If you were an outsider looking at the amount of coverage Woods receives, you would still think he was performing at a high level, when in reality, Tiger is playing worse than ever. Forever, it was a formality that Woods would pass Sam Snead for the most wins on the PGA Tour in history. Tiger hasn’t recorded a win since 2013 though and has only two top-25 finishes in the last two years. It was presumed as well that Tiger would make a run at Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major championships. However, 2008 was the last time Woods claimed a major title and he hasn’t finished even in the top five of a major since the 2013 Masters.

Tiger_Woods_2007Woods has hit a dead point. His game has failed him entirely culminating in the dumpster fire that was Tiger’s last place finish at this past weekend’s Memorial Tournament. He finished an atrocious +14 on the weekend including his third round score of 85. It was a pathetic performance from Woods, but the media ate it up and I continued to get updates about his play all weekend long on sources such as EPSN and Bleacher Report.

As sad as it may be to say it, it is time to move on from Woods. Maybe not permanently but for some time before he is relevant again. There is no reason not to follow his performance or cheer for him to recapture his greatness, but until the greatness is back, there is no reason for him to be plastered all over everything related to golf. Woods is not a good player right now. He sits 181st in the World Golf Rankings, the worst he has been ranked since September 21st, 1996, before his first career win.

If I remember correctly, no one was raving about Rory Sabbatini (I will be impressed if you actually know who that is) this time last year. Sabbatini was the 181st ranked golfer at the end of 2014. Sabbatini has since climbed to 127th spot in the rankings. Obviously, I am not comparing the two as golfers on a who was better level, but you get the idea.

Never has someone so buried in the rankings been so hotly discussed. I am not trying to take away from what Woods has accomplished but the reality is that he is no longer that same player. He is a 39-year old man with chronic back pain in a sport deemed terrible for your back. He has battled wrist and knee pain separately in the last few years and continues to look lost on the golf course. His game has regressed considerably to the point where he can barely compete at the top level at times.

Don’t take this the wrong way. Tiger Woods was an incredible golfer and athlete. He might be the best golfer of all-time but he has completely lost that form. I think it might still be possible for him to regain it with some more work. Woods has spent way too much time trying to find the perfect golf game and has over analyzed his game to a fault. He can slowly chip his way back into relevance. Until then though, it’s time to stop follow Tiger’s every stroke and let golf go on without the once great Woods at the center of attention.