(Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Dec. 16)
THE BIGGEST DRAW IN GOLF is No. 416 in the world rankings, sandwiched between Martin Flores and Rob Oppenheim. He hasn’t won a tournament in 28 months, or a major in 90, and judging by the funereal tone of his news conference in the Bahamas, it’s safe to assume that drought won’t end anytime soon.
But even as his game becomes more curiosity than cultural obsession, even as the next generation of stars dominates the way he used to, Tiger Woods has remained the focal point of the sport by almost any metric.
When he moves into contention, television ratings skyrocket.
When he adds a new tournament, fans turn out in record numbers.
And when he lands in the news, talk shows produce breathless debate and websites post best-ever traffic reports.
Sure, the Woods phenomenon is more subdued now, a byproduct of injury and ineffectiveness, and an uncertainty hovers over golf’s biggest star like never before. But the past year in particular – the worst of his legendary career – is proof that even a diminished Woods is still capable of elevating the sport in ways even the most compelling players cannot.
The Tiger Effect is alive and well as he approaches his 40th birthday – it just looks, sounds and feels different.
GOLF IS THE MOST COMPLICATED sport to cover on television. Think about it: There are as many as 70 balls in the air at one time. There are 18 separate fields spread out over hundreds of acres. There are no numbers or names on the backs of jerseys. And the play is continuous. In timed sports, such as football and basketball, a timeout allows a few moments to reassess. But golf never stops – in fact, the crew works even harder during commercials, taping shots and planning where they will send viewers after the break while also trying to catch up to live coverage and check in on the leaders.
“It’s like putting a puzzle together,” said Lance Barrow, CBS’ coordinating producer for golf and the NFL. “If one of the pieces gets out of whack, it’s really hard to get back on track.”
For the past two decades, the one consistent piece of that puzzle has been Woods, a larger-than-life figure whose play was so dominant that he hijacked the coverage to the point that no one else mattered.
That tone was set early. The first tournament after Barrow assumed the reins of CBS’ golf coverage was the 1997 Masters, one of the most transformative events in the sport’s history. That Sunday, CBS came on the air early, as Woods and Costantino Rocca were hitting their approach shots into the fifth hole. In the production meeting that morning, Barrow had instructed his charges to show every one of Woods’ shots live and to walk with him as he crossed all of Augusta National’s historic landmarks: the short climb from the ninth green to the 10th tee, the uneasy walk from the 11th green to the 12th tee, the marches across the Hogan, Nelson and Sarazen bridges, and the reflective strolls down 16 and up 18.
Tiger at 40
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“If that’s all the golf we show today,” Barrow told the crew, “then that’s all the golf we’re going to show.”
The network’s commitment to Woods paid off, of course, as he won by 12 shots and launched a new era in golf. The telecast delivered huge ratings for CBS, and the same would be true for Woods’ other 13 major victories, especially his most recent (last?) triumph, the 2008 U.S. Open.
Tommy Roy has produced NBC Sports’ golf coverage since 1993, and that Torrey Pines Open still gives him chills. Hobbling around on a broken leg, Woods made two eagles on the back nine Saturday, holed the impossibly bumpy, expect-anything-different? putt to force a playoff and then prevailed in overtime against the likable Rocco Mediate. NBC’s coverage of the event beat out thousands of entries in the Outstanding Live Sports Special category at the Emmys.
“I guarantee if it had been Ben Crane doing those exact same things to win the U.S. Open, we wouldn’t have won jack,” Roy said. “It’s because of Tiger.”
“Through the years what he has brought to the telecast is a level of electricity that only comes with him being there,” he added. “The fans are more excited, the announcers are more excited, and you can feel that through the telecast. It’s harder to cover logistically, because his group is always surrounded by more fans, but it has almost always been well worth it.”
When Woods was at the peak of his powers, no viewer grumbled about the three-hour coverage window being dominated by Woods because the golf was so thrilling, the storylines so clear.
If he was leading: How much will he crush his competition by this time?
If he was hovering near the top of the leaderboard: What miraculous shot will push him ahead?
And if he was trailing by six heading into the back nine, well, even that was straightforward: Stay tuned, folks, because he has more than enough firepower to cut into this deficit!
“Tiger was the only player who took golf from the fourth or fifth page of the sports section not only to the front page, but also the front page of the newspaper, above the fold,” Barrow said. “I’ve always said that Tiger is a story if he’s winning or losing a tournament. People want to know what he’s doing.”
Whether that still rings true is debatable.
After years of showing nearly all of Woods’ shots because he was the biggest story, because he was what fans craved, networks and other media outlets have been criticized in recent years for being too Tiger-centric. It is the role of the producer to determine how much of Woods’ round is shown, if at all, and it has become a balancing act when he is out of the mix: placating the casual fan who only wants to know how Woods is playing while also appealing to the hardcore golf consumer who expects to watch exciting young stars like Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy battle for titles.
Swing changes, injury woes and crises in confidence may make Woods a more compelling figure, but bad golf doesn’t lead to a great viewer experience.
“Producing telecasts where he had these incredible, memory-making moments far outweigh watching him chunk a chip shot,” Roy said.
As a result, most networks have resorted to quickly cutting to Woods finishing out on 18 to wrap up the storyline rather than dragging down a telecast. Which leads to an interesting question for the next few years: If Woods’ mediocrity continues, if he remains a competitive afterthought, will there come a day when he enters a tournament, plays four rounds and isn’t featured in the coverage?
“That’s the cruel thing about covering sports,” Barrow said. “The train leaves the station very quickly when there’s nothing there to talk about and cover. If you’re not at the top of the ladder, a lot of people don’t care. So Tiger not being a story, or at least a part of the broadcast, I don’t know if I will see that day, but it may happen. It’s hard for me to believe that, but yeah, I guess it could happen.”
MARK BRAZIL KNEW THE CLOCK was ticking. He had 30 minutes after Friday’s play at the PGA Championship to secure Woods for his tournament the following week in North Carolina.
What followed was a comedy of errors and miscommunication, and at one point Brazil lost cellphone service and sprinted through a driving rainstorm at Whistling Straits. Finally, he got in front of Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg, and received the news that he had longed to hear since he took over as tournament director of the Wyndham Championship in 2001.
When Woods’ commitment became official, on Monday morning of tournament week, it created pandemonium in Greensboro.
News of Woods’ spot start appeared on every morning talk show.
Wyndham’s social-media accounts exploded.
Concession sales increased by 85 percent.
Clothing sales doubled, and the specially ordered Tiger Woods hats and shirts sold out by Friday morning.
Tournament officials printed 50,000 extra day passes, online ticket sales soared 300 percent, and the overall attendance of 143,000 set a modern tournament record. A local community college was forced to open its parking lots to accommodate the overflow of vehicles.
Brazil even doubled the size of the media center to house the reporters who had altered their travel plans and requested credentials. Typically, the media is lodged inside Sedgefield Country Club’s exercise facility, a cozy space that seats about 40. But with Woods coming to town, Brazil’s team removed all of the free weights and machines and built a news conference room by the pool that housed about 70 media members.
All for a guy, remember, who was nearly two years removed from his most recent top-10 finish on Tour.
“After 22 years in the golf industry, I thought I had a pretty good handle on this Tiger Effect deal,” Brazil said, “but this shocked me.”
For a mid-level tournament like the Wyndham, which usually lacks star power because of its date immediately preceding the FedEx Cup Playoffs, Woods’ arrival was a godsend. Even better was that he played his best golf during what was an otherwise dismal year. After sharing the halfway lead, he entered the final round just two shots behind. A triple bogey on the 11th hole ended his chances, but he still recorded a season-best T-10 finish in front of 35,000 fans.
“He created a whole new era of golf fans who focus on him no matter what he does or how he plays,” said Davis Love III, who won this year’s event. “They want to see Tiger. That’s why we want him back playing out here. He’s still the draw. He doesn’t have to dominate. He just has to go out and play.”
Added Brazil: “Every day he was out there was our biggest day I’ve ever seen.”
That possibility likely wouldn’t even have existed a decade ago. A creature of habit, Woods played virtually the same schedule every year, a collection of brawny courses on which he had enjoyed success. But in recent years, as calls for him to play more events increased as he returned from injury or struggled to regain form, Woods has made a few additional stops: He has played his hometown Honda Classic every year since 2012 when healthy; he trekked to The Greenbrier Classic twice in the last four seasons; and this past year, in addition to the Wyndham, he also returned to golf’s most raucous event, the Phoenix Open, for the first time in 14 years.
“The vibe changes when he announces whether he’s coming or not,” said Kym Hougham, executive director at the Wells Fargo Championship. “It’s totally one fills up the balloon and one sucks it out.”
Woods has played the regular-season stop at Quail Hollow six times since 2004. Some times, he skipped because of injury. Other times, like this past year, he had prior commitments. Whatever the reason, there’s a noticeable difference around town, and Woods’ tendency to wait until the last minute to sign up makes for a stressful 5 p.m. deadline in the tournament office.
“Some years I’ve been sweating bullets,” Hougham said, “but the excitement builds quickly. Tickets don’t sit in the drawer when Tiger is here.”
But when he’s not, there is decidedly less buzz, even with a field that usually includes McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler. There is less national media coverage and recognition. And without the Woods bump, there are fewer people on the course, which shows up in both the concession sales reports and the aerial shots from the blimp.
“It’s a gift to the city and the tournament when he does show up,” Hougham said.
Few understand that better now than Brazil. Every day for two months, he responded to text messages, fielded phone calls and met fans from California to Florida who had watched or attended one of the most fascinating, and unexpected, tournaments of the year.
“He changed that tournament forever, just by him being there that one time,” Jason Gore said.
Though Woods raved about his experience, he was non-committal when asked whether he would consider making a return trip to the area.
“People keep asking me what we’re expecting for next year,” Brazil said, “and I say that everyone needs to lower their expectations.”
A DECADE AGO, TV EXECUTIVES cracked that Woods didn’t just move the needle – he was the needle. In many respects, he still is, even as his body continues to betray him.
This year, ESPN’s first round of the Masters – Woods’ first tournament in more than two months because his game wasn’t up to his standards – attracted the largest audience and highest rating for an opening day since 2010, when Woods returned to golf following his sex scandal. On Saturday, Woods shot 68 to vault onto the first page of the leaderboard, though he was still miles behind the 21-year-old phenom Spieth. CBS’ third-round coverage drew an average metered market rating of 6.5 – up 48 percent from last year’s event, which Woods sat out because of back surgery, and the highest mark since 2011.
And how about the Wyndham, the normally sleepy event before the playoffs? Because of Woods, the final round produced a 3.9 rating – the highest for a non-major since 2013, and a 160 percent bump over last year’s event, won by Camilo Villegas. Even more telling: The Wyndham’s third round drew a higher rating and slightly more viewers than comparable rounds for the PGA Championship and U.S. Open.
Five of the top eight most-read stories (and 13 of the top 30) on this website this year were Woods-related, and a video of his swing created the most engagement on Golf Channel’s digital channels.
And though Woods has yet to fully embrace his own account, he still is king when it comes to Twitter followers, checking in at 5.1 million – nearly double the amount of the next-closest golfer, McIlroy. Even the @GCTigerTracker account, created in 2012 to document Woods’ every move, has more than 132,000 followers.
“The more success he has, the greater the appeal,” said Greg McLaughlin, who ran the Tiger Woods Foundation for 14 years, “but he’s still a 14-time major winner, and as long as he’s in a tournament and competing he’s going to be a focal point and generate a lot of interest.”
But with numerous advertising campaigns focusing on the next wave of talent, it’s clear that PGA Tour executives are already bracing for their post-Tiger reality. Earlier this year, commissioner Tim Finchem recalled how long it took for the golf world to come to grips with Jack Nicklaus saying goodbye. The sport needed years to recover, and the Tour is likely in line for another market correction once Woods hangs up his spikes.
“It’s going to happen,” Finchem said, “so the more relevant question is: How bad is it when it happens? We need other stars to develop.”
By season’s end, he looked prophetic: Spieth earned Player of the Year honors, a healthy Day broke through for his first major and McIlroy won four times worldwide, setting the foundation for a new Big Three in golf.
“The fans really responded to these guys playing at that level,” Finchem said this month. “If that continues, we’re going to be in good shape.”
But what remains to be seen is whether these compelling young stars can draw in the casual viewer that, as CBS’ Barrow said, elevates golf from the sports section to the front page. Winless since August 2013, Woods is still the only player who wields that immense power, but even his personal narrative has shifted. After his career was defined by the certainty of winning, there now is a curiosity and vagueness surrounding Woods that makes him an irresistible attraction for sports observers.
“He has been such an exceptional player that his fall to [416th] in the world or whatever he is now is hard to imagine,” said Hank Haney, who coached Woods from 2004-2010. “As long as he shows up, people are going to be fascinated to see if the greatness in Tiger appears again.”
Granted, it used to appear for weeks at a time, even months. Now, the surges are less frequent, more unpredictable – a few good holes, a few promising rounds. All of which is why Woods’ throwback performance at the Wyndham resonated so strongly. From his holed pitch shot on his opening hole to his putter raises after dropping 30-footers to his birdies in Sunday red, he suddenly erased months of bad memories and morphed into the player that looked so familiar.
“I was watching on my computer, and the guys were going nuts, screaming, ‘He’s back! He’s back!’” said former Tour winner Arron Oberholser, who was calling the action that day for the PGA Tour’s radio network. “Every time he does something he’s ‘back,' but it is just another sign that there is still some magic in there.”
Of course, only the most delusional of sports fans expect the old Tiger to return – the 45 percent win rates, the blowout major victories, the record stay at world No. 1. Instead, they continue to swarm Woods’ group for the same reason they packed stadiums and arenas to watch Derek Jeter flail at a curveball off the plate, or Peyton Manning hurl interceptions, or Kobe Bryant clank mid-range jumpers.
“People want the old Tiger back because of the feelings he created,” Oberholser said. “Maybe if they show up at a tournament, they’re hoping to see just a glimpse of that greatness he once had. In reality, that particular greatness is gone and won’t return, but every once in a while you see it for a round, for a day. It’s a shadow. Now, it’s just hope for people.”
An athlete’s exit rarely is graceful. Guaranteed contracts, diminished skills, stubborn champions and nostalgic fans are a toxic combination, but in golf there are no antsy general managers or owners to push fading superstars out the door. It’s up to the players to look deeply inward, to decide when they’ve endured enough competitive punishment.
Anyone who heard Woods’ sobering remarks at the World Challenge senses that day is closer than ever before. Beaten down by two decades in the spotlight and a litany of injuries, including three back surgeries in the past 18 months, Woods sounded equal parts resigned and relieved.
His legacy was secure years ago, but the Tiger Effect continues to evolve. This phenomenon has always encompassed more than just the wins and the losses, the record books and the rankings. At its core, it’s about the evolution of a global icon, the thrill of a generational talent performing at a higher level than everyone ever has, and the hope that, maybe, just maybe, it all could last just a few moments longer.
“Tiger used to do things that were mystical, that were magical, and because of that you still believe that it can possibly happen again,” said NBC’s Roy. “Common sense says no, but that’s what people feel, and I don’t think they have given up on that feeling just yet.”