Since his historic win at the 1997 Masters, you can't talk about golf without talking about Tiger Woods. Young, handsome and marketable, Woods brought the game into the mainstream of American life. TV ratings for the Masters, golf's marquee event, have increased by about 25 percent since 1997, and when Woods misses a Tour event, ratings can fall by more than 50 percent. His effect on Tour purses is even more pronounced. When Woods turned pro in 1996, PGA Tour purses totaled $66 million. In 2010, that number is $277 million.
But while Woods has done very well for TV executives and himself (Forbes claims he's the first billion-dollar athlete), his impact on recreational golf has been less dramatic. You could even say it's negligible.
"I think a lot of people in the industry were anticipating increased participation [because of Woods], but it didn't materialize in a substantial way," says Greg Nathan, vice president of the National Golf Foundation (NGF). "As far as recreational golf goes, we saw very little increase and when he's not playing, it's highly unlikely we'll see a significant decrease."
According to the NGF, 26.1 million Americans played golf in 1997. In 2008, that number was 28.6 million. An increase, sure, but not anything you could attribute to Woods.
"Population, demographic and lifestyle factors contributed to the increase," Nathan says. "This is a sport driven by passion. What attracts people to the game is the satisfaction of hitting good shots, the social and competitive aspects, being outside."
Equipment sales show a similar immunity to the Tiger effect. Golf Datatech, a market research group, says total equipment sales (balls, clubs, gloves, bags and shoes) were $2.4 billion in 1997. After peaking in 2007 at $2.7 billion, sales in 2009 were $2.4 billion.
"I don't think Tiger has a direct link to the sale of equipment," Golf Datatech co-founder Tom Stine says. "Tiger not playing hurts golf's impact because of who he is, but people don't stop playing golf because Tiger's not playing. A lot of media people have asked me how much this will hurt Nike sales. I tell them it won't hurt Nike sales at all."
If you imagine an It's a Wonderful Life scenario where Earl Woods puts a baseball bat in young Eldrick's crib and raises the world's greatest baseball player instead of the golfer who thrilled us at Augusta, Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines, Nathan says the clubhouse at your local muni wouldn't look any different.
"Golf wouldn't be as pervasive or cool without Tiger, but people don't get hooked on golf because of any player other than themselves," Nathan says. "Without Tiger, the popularity of recreational golf wouldn't be any different."
If you want to see where the game will grow in the next 20 years, Nathan says you should look more at Elin Woods than Tiger. (And who wouldn't want to do that?)
"Women represent possibly the best opportunity to grow participation," Nathan says. "Our figures show that 33 percent of private club members are women, but only 19 percent of public golfers are female. When women are made to feel as welcomed and comfortable at public courses, their play will go up."
Number of American golfers in 1997
Number of American golfers in 2008 [Source: 2009 National Participation Survey The National Golf Foundation]
Total U.S. Golf Equipment Sales in 1997
Total U.S. Golf Equipment Sales in 2009 [Source: Golf Datatech]