Tiger's return: Talk about stimulus

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – At a time when most financial predictions are shanked hopelessly into the rough, there seems to be one stimulus package that everyone agrees will be a resounding success.

When Tiger Woods strides toward the first tee at Dove Mountain in Arizona next Wednesday to reclaim the throne he vacated for eight months, his footsteps will be felt around the golfing universe.

During the world No. 1's injury-enforced absence, fans became spectators, packed galleries became sparse knots of humanity and the straw-hatted officials barely needed to raise their "Quiet" signs to shoulder level.

Yet it will be the men who hold the key to the coffers of professional golf that smile the broadest and cheer the loudest when the Accenture World Match Play Championship is sprinkled with the kind of stardust only one man in the sport can conjure.

The meal ticket has returned, and, for now at least, the nail-biting can cease.

The Woods package: force of swing, cult status and the intrigue of witnessing once-in-a-lifetime greatness unfolding before the eyes of a reinvigorated public, will serve as stimulus personified.

While President Barack Obama's $787 billion bailout package has met with as much resistance as praise, the opinion that Woods' comeback is the best thing golf could have hoped for is unanimous.

"Tiger is the Big Bertha driver of the PGA Tour," said Mark Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based firm that specializes in sports economics. "In financial terms, he carries the entire sport on his shoulders.

"Golf is very susceptible to the influences of the global economic downturn and because of a disproportionate reliance on sponsorship compared to ticket sales and broadcasting rights, it has been one of the hardest-hit sports. Sponsorships were the first thing to be hit and while Tiger can't change the state of the economy, by coming back now, he can certainly lessen the impact of financial factors."

Golf's economic predicament was thrust into the spotlight this week when Sir Allen Stanford, owner of an investment firm which sponsors an event in Memphis, was linked to an alleged multi-billion dollar fraud scheme.

The Texan tycoon's company, the Stanford Financial Group, has backed the Stanford St. Jude Championship since 2006.

"We've had a rough time with Stanford and now this is great news," said tour player and Duke economics graduate Joe Ogilvie. "Wall Street doesn't like uncertainty and at a time when a lot of companies are looking to renew, Tiger coming back is perfect.

"People have been looking to see what is happening with Tiger and now we have the answer. Golf is lucky that for the first time since Arnold Palmer, we have the most popular sportsman in the world."

Golf's wizened traditionalists will forever argue that no man can be bigger than the game, but Woods was certainly bigger than the Northern Trust Open on Thursday, even in absentia.

The Golf Channel effectively abandoned coverage of the event to focus on the emerging story of Woods' participation in the Match Play as it broke.

Word soon buzzed around the Riviera crowd and filtered through to the players on the driving range. Soon, there was only one topic of conversation, and it wasn't Phil Mickelson's sublime round of 63.

"We know when Tiger's in the field," said Alex Cejka. "The crowds go wild. Tons more people come out to watch. If he were here on a Thursday at Riviera the galleries would be full. For the players, it means more. Every player wants the strongest field possible."

In the current climate, potential sponsors want to be confident they are backing a sure thing. Woods' remarkable record of success and immense popularity with both live and television audiences make him a sure thing.

Golf Channel analyst and former tour pro Frank Nobilo likened Woods to Muhammad Ali and insisted that golf didn't die without its main draw card, it merely reverted to type.

"It's like a heavyweight championship. You want your champion back so you can have a fair crack at him," said Nobilo. "Everyone thought golf went down when he stepped away from the game, but it didn't go down. It just went back to what it was."

Yahoo! Sports editor Lisa Antonucci contributed to this report.

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