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'Will golf survive?' Game's prosperity is bigger than Tiger Woods

Brandon TuckerBy Brandon Tucker,
Managing Editor
Tiger Woods at Australian Open
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Can golf survive Tiger Woods? It's survived 500 years, thank you. (Mark Dadswell/Getty Images)

It must be tough for any serious golfer right now, watching their sport get shredded in the meat grinder of the mainstream and Internet media, which, without Tiger Woods' infidelities, wouldn't give one hoot about our game.

But since Thanksgiving, we've been left to digest a lot of silly articles from gossip bloggers and pop culture columnists about Tiger Woods and his impact on the game of golf, who usually point to the "Tiger spike" in TV ratings as their best piece of ammo.

Time Magazine published a column, "Can golf survive without Tiger Woods?" The headline was alarming, but the copy had a lot of vagaries, hunches and hypotheticals with hardly any actual hard facts - basically nothing a golf fan would find insightful. (Click here for the Time article.)

When CNBC had PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem on for his first TV interview since Tiger's announcement of his indefinite leave, sports business reporter Darren Rovell tried to reword the same question about 10 times in the 12-minute interview: "C'mon, Finchem, just admit the game of golf is screwed without Tiger; please, c'mon." (Click here for the CNBC interview).

Finchem fired back with a variety of good points, but his logic was this: Golf was here centuries before the PGA Tour and will be here long after any one superstar on tour.

And he's right. Consider this: In the "Tiger Era," on a percentage basis, event purses haven't gone up any more than they did in any other era going back to the 1970s. (I wrote a blog on this stat.) Golf surged in popularity, as did all sports, as television and coverage kept getting better. Tour purse sizes are stalling, but so are salaries in most major sports.

Much has been made about the Tour's expiring network TV contracts in 2012. But do you really think CBS and NBC will be able to find anything better than golf for their summer weekend time slots? Made-for-TV movies? Arena football? Major League Soccer?

At the worst, PGA Tour purse sizes retract to the point that you don't become an instant millionaire if you win a golf tournament, and the schedule might shrink by a couple tournaments. If anything, that's a positive, because it would keep the star players entered in a higher percentage of tournaments.

Tiger's impact on golf's growth has been very little

The PGA Tour has no doubt enjoyed a spike in mainstream sports popularity since Tiger's arrival, but that hasn't translated to more golfers in America.

According to the National Golf Foundation, the United States' participation rate in 1995 is virtually unchanged compared to 2008 (10.3 percent versus 10.2 percent), even though we saw a small spike to more than 11 percent between 2000-2005.

During this period, golf has grown most in Asia. You could argue that Tiger has helped aid golf's exposure in Asia. But the more obvious reason is that Asian developing economies have taken to capitalism, like China and Vietnam. Where there are business meetings and levels of social status, there are golf resorts and country clubs.

Other southeast Asian nations such as Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia have been golf mad well before Tiger, but they have gotten more pro tour exposure in recent years, most recently with the announcement of a seven-year deal for a PGA Tour event in Malaysia. But Tiger himself hasn't even been playing much in Asia anyways, and it's hard to believe he'd make the Malaysia tournament a regular stop.

Lets also remember that just months ago, golf was added to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero and will be competed on a global stage never done before (whether Tiger is there or not). Look for this stage to be a catalyst for growth in South America, where Argentina is really the only moderately developed golf nation thus far.

PGA Tour health vs. golf's health

There's a big difference between the question "Can golf survive?" and "Can the PGA Tour survive?" Golf's macro issues surfaced long before Tiger Woods made any "transgressions."

Golf's problems for future sustainability have been known for some time. One is barrier to entry, which Woods hasn't helped. Each of his three golf designs in Dubai, Mexico and North Carolina are private clubs intended for the wealthy. If our cities don't have affordable, accessible golf courses (like Toronto, for instance, which is a reason why Canada enjoys the world's highest participation rate: more than 20 percent), participation will decrease. Hopefully for the sake of good PR, Woods' design team will undertake some pro bono projects like Pete Dye has.

The other major headwind is environmental sustainability, given the world's increasing strain on natural resources. Golf designs need to be built smarter, shorter and cheaper so that green fees can stay low, not big-budget flashy and reported to be 7,700 yards (as is the case with Woods' Dubai project, Al Ruwaya). Most golf courses seem to be getting the memo and are becoming more environmentally friendly.

For those of us in the golf industry, we're going to have to remind ourselves not to fall into the mainstream gutter of Tiger Woods nonsense and stay focused on introducing the game to young people, keeping golf affordable and accessible, and proving a golf course, when done properly, can be an environmentally positive thing to lay on the ground.

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Boo Weekley - 2008 Ryder CupTiger Woods in Dubai

Brandon Tucker is the Managing Editor for Golf Advisor. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and over 500 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at BrandonTuckerGC.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Changes To Golf

    Bob Gaudreau wrote on: Jan 12, 2010

    I enjoyed the article immensely and your points about growth reinforce the bad job that the industry leader (PGA of America) is doing in growing the game! I also believe that Tiger is not the game of golf, as evidenced by previous departures by the greats of the game such as Hogan, Nelson, Snead, Nicklaus, Palmer, etc.!
    There has to be a serious commitment by people in the game/know, to step forward to grow the game and it will have to come from people like myself who have a vested business interest in assisting in growth! We are doing what we can as a small business entity to grow through a concept called Portable Golf and we are currently testing several new business models to reduce the costs invovled with entry and at the same time introduce a much easier teaching method for beginners to learn the game from a physical skill level.
    If you are interested in being on a committee of people I am bringing together to advance the game through THINK-TANK and testing processes let me know!
    Bob Gaudreau-CEO
    Media Golf Productions, LLC
    DBA: Portable Golf Solutions
    DBA: Charity Fantasy Golf