Golf celebrates the return of Tiger Woods
With a mixture of huge relief and joy, the PGA Tour celebrates the return of Tiger Woods to competition this week after an eight-month injury absence.
The American world number one, sidelined since his extraordinary U.S. Open playoff victory at Torrey Pines in June, is back to defend his title at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
More importantly for the Tour, though, is the likely impact of the most influential player in the game.
Ever since he turned professional amid much expectation in late 1996, Woods has been golf’s equivalent of the goose that continues to lay golden eggs.
In many ways, he has almost single-handedly ushered in an era of multi-million dollar endorsements and lucrative appearance money over the last decade and more.
His Afro-American-Asian background has spread the sport to an audience far beyond its traditional image of male, white and middle-class and he has become arguably the world’s best known and most marketable athlete.
The absence of Woods over the last eight months was a little like trying to stage the Oscars without the prized statuettes.
Most fans have sorely missed him and television ratings have plunged at golf tournaments where he normally plays.
On top of that, the world has changed since Woods defied stabbing knee pain and a double stress fracture of his left tibia to beat fellow American Rocco Mediate over 19 holes to clinch his 14th major title.
The global economic landscape has been left in tatters and the PGA Tour faces an uncertain future with turmoil in the auto and financial services sectors leaving the sport vulnerable to the loss of marketing and advertising dollars.
Eleven of the Tour’s title sponsors come from the financial sector and many of these contracts are up for renewal after the end of the 2010 season.
Woods himself is not immune. Last November, automaker General Motors’ Buick brand ended its endorsement deal with Woods, worth an estimated $8 million annually, a year early in a move to cut costs.
Hi return has been viewed as golf’s ideal stimulus package but the world number one prefers not to see it like that.
“The only thing I can control is my play,” the 33-year-old said in a conference call last week after announcing his comeback following reconstructive knee surgery.
“We as a collective whole on the PGA Tour have to do a better job of making sure that we appreciate all the fans and sponsors for what they do for us and allowing us to have an opportunity to compete and play for a living.
“In these times, I think everyone’s well aware of how important that is. Over the years we may have taken that for granted but now is a time when reality has checked in.”
Virtually to a man, Woods’s peers have celebrated his return.
“We need him back and we’re all excited to have him back,” American world number three Phil Mickelson said after winning his 35th PGA Tour title at the Northern Trust Open.
“I hope he stays healthy because it’s evident the game needs him. The economy has been struggling, the sponsors have been struggling and to have him back is so critical for the sport.”
Although Woods has a few detractors who argue he has become bigger than the game, compatriot Steve Stricker disagrees.
“It’s nothing but good things for our Tour when he comes back,” the four-times PGA Tour winner said.
“Tiger has not only brought a lot of attention to our sport and to our game but he’s helped raise the purses here dramatically.
“We owe him a lot as a player. I’ve thanked him a number of times, I really have.”
February 24, 2009