Masters: If the TV numbers are down, it will be a full-blown panic for the sport of golf

AUGUSTA, Ga. — LIV Golf doesn’t really interest me. The 54 holes. The courses. The team aspect. The shotgun-start. Maybe even the players wearing shorts.

Judging by the television ratings, I’m not alone.

The watered down PGA Tour doesn’t really interest me either. Too few stars. Too little drama. The sense of disappointment that what was once great is less so.

Judging by the television ratings, I’m not alone.

This isn't about rooting for one side or the other in golf’s civil war. It isn’t about politics or investment funds or anything other than watching the actual golf just isn’t as entertaining as it once was … or at least seemed.

Again, judging by the television ratings, I’m not alone.

“If you look at the data this year, golf viewers are down linear television while other sports, some other sports are up,” Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley said on Wednesday. “So you can draw your own conclusions.

“Certainly the fact that the best players in the world are not convening very often is not helpful,” Ridley continued. “Whether or not there's a direct causal effect, I don't know. But I think that it would be a lot better if they were together more often.”

It would. And, at least this week, they will be, which makes the 88th Masters one that golf fans should be salivating over. For this brief window (and the three majors that follow) the game of golf might actually feel like the game of golf.

You want 72 holes of Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson and Scottie Scheffler and Tiger Woods and Xander Schauffele and so on and so on? Well, here it is. Amen Corner as well.

And that’s what makes this a critical moment for the sport.

Will millions, even 10 million, still watch like always, or has the fractured sport's flailing interest carry over even to its signature event?

PGA Tour ratings are down about 20 percent year-over-year.

“That’s a fifth, that’s big,” McIlroy said last week at the Valero Texas Open. “Twenty percent is a pretty jarring number.”

Meanwhile, LIV Golf stopped reporting its numbers last year, but what is known via Nielsen is audiences on the CW are often in the low 100,000s and haven’t topped half a million this year.

Even the rare success story comes with an asterisk. On Feb. 4, the final round of the LIV Mayakoba drew a season-high 432,000 viewers. It was beaten, however, more than three-to-one by the 1.7 million who watched a rerun of Round 3 of the weather-suspended PGA Tour’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am.

The following week’s finale of the LIV Las Vegas managed just 297,000.

Last year, 12.06 million watched the final round of the Masters on CBS, which is in line with recent history. Numbers can vary by who is in contention or outside factors — 2019 began in the morning to avoid weather and 2020 was played in the fall due to COVID.

Will that many tune in again? Will it be more because of pent-up demand to see the best of the best finally face off? Or will it be lower because some of the audience has given up on the sport or gotten out of the habit of seeking out golf?

The Masters should be bulletproof, an event that stands above everything else because of its history, tradition and location.

But ...

“I just think with the fighting and everything that [has gone] on over the past couple years, people are just getting really fatigued [by] it,” McIlroy said. “And it’s turning people off to men’s professional golf. That’s not a good thing for anyone.”

If the numbers go south this week, then it will be a full blown panic in the sport.