Tiger Woods is bigger than golf.
There, I said it.
The complaint I hear most from golf fans is that the media’s dogged coverage of Tiger Woods is damaging the game and its other attention-worthy players. It’s a fair point. Golf was here long before Woods and it will go on for years after he’s gone.
But right now, in 2009, Woods is dominating the sport and the imaginations of fans in a historic way. With the possible exception of Jack Nicklaus, no parallel can even be found among golfers. Instead, we have to look to the sports heroes for the ages like Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth — athletes who dominated their sports while enthralling people who had never been fans before. After all, we in the golf media cover Woods so extensively because he’s the one our viewers and readers want to know about. We have the television ratings, newsstand sales and Web site stats to prove it.
The more sophisticated argument against Woods-a-palooza is that by staking so much on Woods, the game has sown the seeds of its irrelevance. When Woods retires, those fans who only watched for him will depart with him. The Associated Press’ Tim Dahlberg made this case after Woods’s riveting win at Bay Hill last weekend, which generated the best golf TV ratings since, well, Woods’s riveting U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines.
“It certainly doesn’t bode well for the future of the sport because there will be a time when Woods is no longer playing and a lot of people will be no longer watching,” Dahlberg said. “We got a taste of it during his forced hiatus from the game and it wasn’t pretty, though Padraig Harrington tried his best to make it interesting. Golf was a niche sport before Woods arrived on the scene, and it will become one once again when he leaves. He gives people a reason to care, something the mostly robotic group of players who make up the PGA Tour can’t even come close to doing.”
Michael Jordan, the athlete to whom Woods is most often and correctly compared, amassed championships, MVP awards and scoring records while building a business empire. He brought new fans to the NBA (and NBC) — fans who skeptics said would tune out as soon as Jordan retired. Those doubters were right for a time, but the most important thing Michael Jordan brought basketball is LeBron James. The Cleveland Cavaliers superstar grew up idolizing Jordan, and Jordan’s achievements on the court helped a young James imagine he could equal or even surpass them. Now basketball has an appealing group of young stars led by another transcendent player, and the game is healthier than ever.
The same thing will happen in golf. You saw it when Woods won the Masters 11 years after Nicklaus’s final victory at Augusta, and it’s still happening now. While guys like Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia and even Phil Mickelson are condemned to always be in Woods’s shadow, today’s younger players grew up idolizing Woods. They have a different idea of what’s possible, and they have modeled their games and styles after Woods. You saw it at last year’s Ryder Cup with the play of rookies Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan and J.B. Holmes, and this year with the emergence of teenagers like Rory McIlroy, Danny Lee and Ryo Ishikawa. You can call these players a lot of things (and in the case of Kim a lot of stood-up sportswriters have), but robotic isn’t one of them. These kids all grew up wanting to win more majors than Woods, and they and others like them will be fascinating to fans long after Woods sails off into the sunset on a $100 million yacht called “Leave Me the Hell Alone.”
So for now, enjoy Woods vs. Phil Mickelson or Padraig Harrington or maybe even McIlroy at next week’s Masters, and don’t worry about the future of golf. Woods’s ultimate legacy — like all the greats — will be that he grew his game. And that’s good news for the game.