LAS VEGAS – Welcome back, Tiger Woods. It’s been way too long.
Just eight months have passed since that Monday on the edge of the Pacific Ocean when neither Rocco Mediate nor a bum leg could deny you another U.S. Open trophy. Across the country on that magical day, productivity in offices dropped as workers tuned in to see how you would pull it off.
But a lot has changed since you went away.
You probably know about some of it because even billionaires have to watch where their money goes. If not, the $8 million haircut you took when Buick removed its name from your bag had to catch your attention.
It shouldn’t be much problem getting those millions back because there’s still money to be made on the PGA Tour — and lots of it. By the end of the year, you’ll probably be back on top the money list again, and have one or two more majors tucked away in your chase of Jack Nicklaus.
There’s a good chance you’ll win that FedEx Cup thing, too, though not much of a chance anyone will understand exactly what it is.
So, welcome back, because golf has missed you terribly. Greatness doesn’t come around often so when it’s gone, even temporarily, we appreciate it even more.
But take a long look around before going back to work. Because things are different now.
Golf is in trouble. And even the return of Tiger Woods can’t change that.
Some of that, of course, is just a reflection of the times we’re in. The economic meltdown is affecting all sports, and even the stimulus provided by Woods’ return can’t overcome the underlying damage done since he was last seen holding the U.S. Open trophy.
It seems strange now, but at Torrey Pines last June, people took the day off work just to be able to say they were there. Now some of those same people are being forced to take days off or, worse yet, don’t have jobs to play hooky from anymore.
Golf courses are closing around the country, done in by their own greed and the increasing reluctance of golfers to part with green fees often in excess of $100. The country club set has seen its investments vanish and the business model that sustained private courses for years may be permanently broken.
On tour, the loss of Woods did more than just cause television ratings to plummet to microscopic levels. It made people realize just how uninteresting golf is without him.
The PGA Tour was once filled with players who understood how lucky they were to play golf for a living and realized that without fans and sponsors they would be trying to move merchandise in a pro shop somewhere. Today, the tour is filled with robots who take way too long to play, don’t interact with anyone, and give us no compelling reason to care whether they win or not.
Woods himself said on Friday that players need to understand who pays the bills.
“I think over the years we may have taken that for granted,” he said. “But certainly now is a time that reality has certainly checked in.”
More important than ticket sales, though, are the sponsorships that allow tournaments the big purses that are now expected at even the smallest tour event. The tour is heavily dependent on car companies and financial firms for those sponsorships, industry segments that have been hit hardest by the economic meltdown, and there are tournaments that will soon be in jeopardy because of it.
Among them is the Stanford St. Jude Championship, which commissioner Tim Finchem said will be played this year despite accusations the chairman of Stanford Financial Group ran an $8 billion fraudulent investment scheme.
No, Tiger can’t cure all the game’s ills. That’s too big a task even for Tiger Woods.
But it’s sure good to have him back.
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