For the millions of us who get our golf through TV, our summer and fall will not be the same with Tiger Woods out of action. He won't be taking sandy divots at the British Open on ESPN and ABC. He won't be fist-pumping at the PGA Championship on CBS. He won't be making a processional walk with his wife at the Ryder Cup opening ceremonies on NBC (unless he becomes an assistant captain, and don't count on that). The various Golf Channel talk shows won't be able to analyze Tiger's prospects and Tiger's swings and Tiger's performances. It will be a brave new world. As a general rule of thumb, Tiger's presence at a golf tournament doubles ratings.
"This will be an incredible opportunity for the guys, especially Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia," said Tommy Roy, the executive producer for golf for NBC, which will cover the Ryder Cup and the FedEx Cup events. "Phil has already shown that he draws general sports fans, not just golfers, to the screen. Sergio showed at the Players that he's coming into his own. But there's no question, we're going to feel the loss of Tiger, especially at the stroke-play events, where you'll have a true golf viewership. The Ryder Cup is different, because we tend to show whatever match is closest that is farthest along, whoever that may be."
Roy used to rank the '86 Masters, won by Jack Nicklaus, as the most compelling golf telecast he had ever seen, followed by the '99 Ryder Cup, when the Americans staged a wild Sunday comeback over the Europeans. But now he has a new No. 1: last week's U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. At the '86 Masters (on CBS) and the '99 Ryder Cup (on NBC), the intense action unfolded over an afternoon. "At the U.S. Open this year, you had that drama going from Friday afternoon through the end of play on Monday," Roy said. And now that we know more about how bad Woods's left knee was at Torrey Pines, what he accomplished there and the telecast of it is even more of a feat.
Jim Nantz, the longtime CBS Sports anchor, said that he now considers Woods's play at the U.S. Open, given what is known about it now, as the greatest performance by a hurt athlete ever, ahead of Willis Reed of the New York Knicks in the 1970 NBA Finals or Kurt Gibson of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1988 World Series.
"We'll have golf this year, and someone will win that Claret Jug at the British Open and someone will win that Wanamaker Trophy at the PGA Championship, and whoever does, it will be a great moment for them and there will be no asterisk on it, but let's be realistic here: this news is a punch in the gut. It's as if someone sucked all the air right out of the building. We're talking about perhaps the most dominant athlete in the history of sports. I'm already thinking about '09. Can you come back from this kind of surgery in nine months? But you know he'll treat his rehab as he treats everything else, as a personal challenge, and he'll thrive on it."
Nantz looks forward to covering Woods again at Torrey Pines at the Tour stop in San Diego early in 2009. In the meantime, he says, what we know now further explains two of the shots from Woods he had never seen before. The first was the level of exuberance "bordering on over-exuberance," Nantz said that Woods showed when he holed the putt to tie on the 72nd hole. The second was the smile on Woods's face when his daughter, Sam, who turned 1 on the day Woods made his announcement about the '08 season, wanted to return to his arms when Tiger handed her to his wife, Elin, at the U.S. Open trophy ceremony.
"He knew what he was putting himself through," Nantz said. "When he holed that putt to tie, he was saying, 'I didn't put myself through all this to finish second.' That smile with Sam told you it was all worthwhile."
Lance Barrow, the coordinating producer for golf for CBS, will have the job of producing the PGA Championship without Tiger in the field. He said, "Sure, we would like to have Tiger in contention on Sunday. But no matter who is in contention, it's a major championship and someone has to win, and it will be exciting. There are so many other good golfers out there ready to make their move."
David Feherty of Golf Magazine and CBS brought a touch of levity to the news, as one might expect. He said, "He just won the U.S. Open with one leg tied behind his back, and it was broken in two places. Probably not a lot of comfort to the rest of the boys. I suspect he is as much exhausted with the media circus as he is injured, and he is going to spend some time with his wife and baby girl and, at the same time, make sure [his knee] heals properly. Good luck to him, and if anyone deserves six months away from their planet, it would be him. I know he'll miss me, but he'll get over it."
The record amounts of money, even when adjusted for inflation, that the networks are paying the PGA Tour for the right to broadcast golf tournaments is directly attributable to Woods's popularity among viewers. The first Tour contract in the Tiger years was a 65-percent increase in value over the previous one. The second was a 35 percent increase over its predecessor. It has meant millions more dollars in the pockets of Woods's fellow touring professionals, and of course his own. His absence is a serious blow to the golf broadcasting world. Last year, when the Colorado tournament, The International, was taken off the PGA Tour schedule, Jack Vickers, the tournament's chairman, said, "When [Tiger] is playing, the ratings are great, and when he's not, they are not so hot." Woods didn't play in The International, and that was its death knell. "When we talk to potential sponsors, they call their advertising people, and the next thing we're talking about is ratings, and that makes it tough," Vickers said.
But on the day the news broke, TV executives and broadcasters didn't want to analyze Woods in terms of commerce. They were discussing it as a matter of sport. Page Thompson, president of the Golf Channel, said in a statement, "Tiger's a great champion and perhaps the greatest athlete who has ever lived and his U.S. Open championship victory, certainly, was one for the ages. While the news that he won't be competing for the remainder of the season will have its impact, we're pleased that he is taking the appropriate steps to get back to full strength and look forward to his return. In the meantime, our viewers can continue to enjoy a variety of golf programming and action from the best players in the world from all the major tours."
One of the Golf Channel's key broadcasters, Rich Lerner, said there will be no replacing Woods for the rest of 2008. "In football terms, we've lost the 210-yard, three-touchdowns-per-game superstar," Lerner said, "but the games will go on. Personally, I have mixed emotions. It was thrilling to have witnessed what we now know was one of the most courageous winning performances in sports history. But it's also sad that we'll not see him compete for the remainder of the season. I wish him the very best, and would even say thanks for treating the world to something so extraordinary."
Mike Tirico of ESPN will cover the Tigerless British Open. He said, "Not having him will have a huge impact. Not just for the British, but for the PGA and the PGA Tour. No sport, not even the NBA during the height of the Jordan days, saw its imprint on the sports world tied to one man like Tiger and golf are now. It's a huge opportunity for the best of the rest. We know the man to beat at every major will be missing, but history will remember you as a major champion whether Tiger was in the field or not. So if I were a player, I'd be booking my flight to arrive at Royal Birkdale a bit earlier."