The False Promise of Tiger Woods

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COMMENTARY | Please, everyone, spare me the lamentations over Tiger Woods' dismal performance at the Masters. The old Tiger isn't back, and he never will be.

And while we're at it, enough of the wishful notion that a return to form by Mr. Woods would be a shot in the arm of golf. Not so. Unless you consider a shot of heroin to be good for the game's well being.

Sure, those with vested interests in the TW brand were overjoyed when Woods won at Bay Hill. They have a Tiger dependency. But Woods' successes or failures won't affect the game itself. At least by measures that mean something.

The TV networks that cover golf continue to pin hopes on a Woods revival. ESPN broadcast the first 36 holes of the Masters and reaped a windfall of viewership, including a record average 4.1 million on Friday, according to Nielsen statistics. Over the weekend, CBS was the beneficiary of interest in Woods' fate after he opened with two lackluster rounds. He failed to rebound, leaving Golf Channel to dissect Tiger ad nauseam for the foreseeable future. Surely golf would be better served if people went to the course and teed it up -- perhaps inspired by the highly entertaining Masters champ, Bubba Watson -- instead of staying home and watching that drivel.

No doubt the hired help at Woods' compound on Jupiter Island, Fla., as well as the crew of his yacht "Privacy" are thrilled that their boss is making money again. Ditto for Tiger's agent, Mark Steinberg, and the rest of his support staff. But what do they contribute to golf?

EA Sports likely will enjoy a bump in sales of its Tiger Woods video games. As to how many gamers play the real game, your guess is as good as mine. But it's not likely they're making cash registers sing at the local public course, since that would entail actually going outside.

One might think Nike Golf would benefit, but Woods has been emblazoned with a Swoosh since he turned pro 16 years ago, and the brand still doesn't resonate all that much with golf consumers. Yes, Nike sells plenty of shirts and shoes. Although comparative sales numbers are zealously protected by equipment manufacturers, it's common knowledge within the industry that purchases of Nike clubs and balls lag behind brands like TaylorMade, Titleist, Ping and Callaway.

The list of Woods' sponsors also includes Fuse Science (nutrition technology); Kowa Group (a Japanese company that "focuses on trading of textiles, machinery and construction materials and manufacturing, and sales of pharmaceutical products and optical devices"); NetJets; Rolex; TLC Laser Eye Centers; Upper Deck; and Dubai Properties Group. What those companies contribute to golf is marginal, at best.

Sean Foley, who coaches Woods, will continue to reap rewards if his pupil keeps winning, as did his predecessors Butch Harmon and Hank Haney, who parlayed their association with the world's No. 1 player into golf guru riches. Hopefully Harmon and Haney have advised Foley to enjoy it -- endure it may be more accurate -- while it lasts.

Of course, the PGA Tour will gain attention, especially at tournaments in which Woods deems to compete, but only for the short term. When Woods' career has ended -- which could happen anytime, since his left leg is a ticking time bomb -- the Tour and its players will suffer through a painful market correction.

Woods single-handedly changed the calculus of professional golf, enabling the PGA Tour to increase purses to the point where 104 players earned more than $1 million in prize money in 2008, compared to nine millionaires in 1996, when Woods arrived on the scene (89 players pocketed $1 million or more last season). Top players on the PGA Tour also feather their retirement fund nest eggs with five- and six-figure annual contributions, and--for those with some flair--significantly increase their income with endorsement deals. As a result, pro golf is saddled with a generation of players more interested in making cuts than making history.

The notion of role models in sports may be antiquated, but as much as it still exists, Woods doesn't qualify. His work ethic, drive to succeed and tactical golf intellect merit respect and admiration, no question. But for a game that promotes itself as owning the high ground of honor and integrity, Woods being king of that hill just doesn't square. Contrary to what one might expect from a guy whose foibles and character flaws have been so publicly exposed--fairly or unfairly--Woods is as irascible as ever. He's been neither contrite nor apologetic, at least not convincingly. He's still arrogant, condescending, rude and self-centered.

Not long after Woods turned pro, his father, Earl, told Sports Illustrated that young Eldrick "will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity." Thirteen years later, revelations following Tiger's encounter with a fire hydrant changed that career path.

And when Woods uttered his famous "Hello, world" greeting in August of '96, his presence on the scene was expected to ignite a burst of minority participation in golf. The number of African-American golfers did spike during the late 1990s, but quickly leveled off. The most recent National Golf Foundation research on minority participation, published in 2010, revealed a slightly downward trend in African-American participation from 2007 to 2009, when 3.9 percent of America's black population were counted as golfers. Not only is Woods the only African-American on the PGA Tour, he is one of a scant number competing at any level, be it men's or women's developmental pro tours, college golf, or junior golf. Nor is there much, if any, increase in minority presence among golf administrators, equipment company executives, club professionals, course superintendents, or any other facet of the golf business. One need only attend a tournament or walk the floor of the game's two major annual trade gatherings -- the PGA Merchandise Show and the Golf Industry Show -- to confirm, if only anecdotally, golf's stubborn homogeneity.

Bottom line, fewer people in the United States play the game now than when Woods was at his zenith, and that number continues to erode. According to the National Golf Foundation, there were 25.7 million golfers in America in 2011, down from a historic high of 30 million in 2005. Rounds played last year dropped to 463 million from 518 million in 2000. For the sixth year in a row, more golf courses in this country have closed than have opened (158 closures vs. 19 openings in 2011, according to the NGF). The frenzy of golf course construction from the mid-1980s through 2005 was primarily a real estate boom, not a golf boom.

Golf isn't for everybody. It's not easy to learn, and it's impossible to master. It's expensive. It's time consuming. It's intimidating. It's humbling. Its rules often defy common sense and some of its traditions are downright primitive. For the last 20 years, golf's powers-that-be have tried to "grow the game" with all sorts of "initiatives" and pie-in-the-sky, if not delusional, promotions--with zero success.

Yes, the economy is mostly to blame for golf's recent woes, not Tiger Woods. But that's the point. Anyone who thinks Tiger can rescue the game is dreaming.

Dave Seanor is an award-winning golf writer who has covered the game for more than 20 years, including 13 years as Editor of Golfweek magazine.

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