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PGA proves it: Without Tiger, TV golf is in a tailspin

Cratering. Devastation. Decimation. Those are a few of the kinder terms to characterize the decline in the PGA Tour's most conspicuous indicators since Tiger Woods underwent season-ending knee surgery just a few days after his epic U.S. Open win in June. In the immediate wake of The Tiger Show at Torrey Pines, the Tour was riding a crest: Its prime-time rating and audience share for NBC's final-round telecast that Sunday (10.0/20) had been even higher than the figures for the competing NBA Finals Game 5 on ABC (9.0/16).

Since then, however, golf's TV ratings have fallen into the abyss. Despite Padraig Harrington's thrilling victory on Sunday at Oakland Hills, the overnight rating for the PGA Championship was 3.0, down 55% from last year's final round at Southern Hills — an event won by (surely you recall) Woods.

Such a figure bodes poorly for NBC's return to the Tour over Labor Day weekend for the second FedEx Cup playoff event, the Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston in Norton, Mass. (CBS will telecast the first FedEx event, the Barclays Championship, which Woods did not play in last year.) The Deutsche Bank — which last year featured Woods's gripping Labor Day duel with eventual winner, Phil Mickelson — will be hard-pressed to approach '07's superb 3.4 final-round rating. Nor can NBC be optimistic about the other two FedEx events it carries, the BMW and the Tour Championship. With the possible exception of the Sept. 19-21 Ryder Cup (also on NBC), the Nielsens almost certainly will stay in the doldrums until Tiger's expected return in 2009.

Though ratings for post-U.S. Open Tour events this summer have been uniformly dismal, the most instructive comparisons are in the numbers for the final rounds of the four events in which Tiger played in '07. The three domestic events were down precipitously , with the AT&T Classic off 42% and the WGC-Brigestone lower by 39%. (Like the PGA, both were telecast by CBS.) This falloff is reminiscent of the decline in NBA ratings when Michael Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls after the 1998 playoffs. The British Open, on ABC, was down a more modest 11% from '07.

Domestic box office has taken a hit, too, no doubt affected not only by Tiger's absence but also by economic factors like the soaring price of gas. In July, the AT& T, Tiger's own tournament at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., reported four-day attendance of 107,120, a drop of 32,269 from '07. For the WCC-Bridgestone at Akron's Firestone Country Club (which usually attracts 120,00 for four days) and the PGA at Oakland Hills, media reports indicated that crowds were smaller than in '07. At Firestone, according to AkronNewsNow.com, one man who lives near the course and offers $8 parking spots on his lawn said he usually parks 30 cars, but this year only had 19. (However, proving that there will always be an England, the brutal conditions at Royal Birkdale for the British Open didn't scare off the patrons: More than 200,000 defied the elements, the sixth-highest total in the 137 years the event has been contested.)

In the coming weeks, the FedEx Cup events will have the Herculean task of attracting fans to see if the current points leader, Kenny Perry, can seal the deal. Last week the Newark Star-Ledger reported that ticket sales for next week's Barclays (which this year has moved from Westchester Country Club to Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J.) are running ahead of last year's pace but that a sellout is not expected.

Of course, there's almost always money at the high end: Crain's Detroit Business reported a sellout for Oakland Hills' corporate hospitality packages ranging from $37,500 for a 10-person table to $500,00 for a corporate chalet.

Bucking the ratings trend, the Orlando Sentinel reported that the Golf Channel has experienced 5% ratings growth this year for tournaments that Tiger was absent from in both 2007 and '08. Maybe hardcore fans are looking for the stars of tomorrow. For TV's sake, one of them better be named Tiger.

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