The PGA Tour is kidding itself when it says it will be fine without Tiger Woods

The PGA Tour is kidding itself when it says it will be fine without Tiger Woods

Tim Finchem, left, with Tiger Woods in September.
Fred Vuich/SI

CNBC or Saturday Night Live? When it comes to their coverage of Tiger Woods and the PGA Tour, it’s hard to tell the two apart. Speaking with CNBC’s Darren Rovell on Thursday, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem answered questions about the effect of Woods’ absence on the Tour. Finchem argued preposterously that his organization will be fine without Woods, because, hey, we still have Camilo Villegas.

On 'Saturday Night Live' last week, Jason Sudeikis played Finchem in a skit where the commish argued preposterously that the Tour will be OK without Woods, because, hey, we still have Geoff Ogilvy. The real Finchem had the better joke though, albeit unintentionally — he ended his interview with Rovell by saying that he hoped Woods would get back to “stimulate young people.” (Everything in golf is a double entendre these days.)

The truth is that Woods’ scandal-prompted exile from the game comes at the worst possible time. The Tour is struggling to attract sponsors and sell tickets in a terrible recession. CBS Sports analyst Peter Kostis said he’s never seen attendance at Tour events as soft as last year and that some Tour events are on life-support. And that was a year in which Woods won six times.

From the business perspective, we’re paying too much attention to Gillette and Accenture and not enough to how Woods’ sabbatical will hurt the Tour. Finchem is having trouble attracting new sponsors partly because golf has been branded as the hobby of corporate, layoff-loving fat cats. Wachovia had its name taken off the Quail Hollow Championship, and TARP-loving Northern Trust executives attending a Sheryl Crow concert at Riviera were treated by the media like Nero at a bacchanalia while Rome burned.

Woods’ image used to be the perfect counter to that. Watch this video of golf’s Olympic bid and you get a sense of how the game uses Woods to promote itself. Woods will still sell tickets and attract TV viewers, but he won’t have that iconic stature anymore. Corporations don’t want to be associated with anything controversial, so ironically, golf’s vanilla image was one of its positives on the sponsorship front. Thanks to Woods, golf isn’t so bland anymore.

Privately Finchem and other Tour officials have to be furious with Woods for complicating the already serious problems caused by the recession. Woods has been the Tour’s trump card for more than 10 years. Yes, prospective sponsor, those other sports are great, but how would you like to be associated with the most famous athlete in sports? Today, maybe not so much.

Finchem is taking aim at the perception that a sidelined Tiger is going to hurt the Tour economically, and that without Woods the game has limited appeal. Can’t blame a guy for trying, but if the game doesn’t have a sponsorship problem, how can the Torrey Pines tournament, a marquee regular season event that Woods and Phil Mickelson always play, have no title sponsor for 2010? If golf without Woods is not a niche sport, how do you explain the almost 50 percent viewer drop-off when Woods was out for knee surgery?

The silver lining for the Tour is that when Woods comes back, interest in him and the game will be greater than ever. Finchem told Rovell that Woods is not bigger than golf. That’s wrong. After what happened these last two weeks, he’s bigger than sports. When he comes back, the Tour will have Brangelina on the course 16 weekends a year. Someone ought to be able to sell that.

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