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And The Winner Is...

By John M. Ross,
Tiger Woods
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In 2000, Tiger Woods led in scoring average, putts, greens in regulation, birdies and "all-around." (PGA of America)

It's that time of the year for handing out the almost endless awards for performance, but with Tiger Woods running the table in golf in 2000, judges and selection committees likely have little to do. Perhaps all the awards could be incorporated into one super, all-embracing prize that proclaims Best of the Year, and simply hand it to him. There wouldn't be a demurrer in the house.

Aside from the dazzling assortment of titles, records and historical "firsts" he has strung together during this memorable season, a glance at the PGA Tour's stats quickly confirms his dominance. Of the nine categories of play measured, Tiger led in five - scoring average, putts, greens in regulation, birdies and "all-around." He was second to John Daly by five yards in driving average, but was about 186 places ahead of him on the money list. And Tiger was third in total driving.

He didn't make the upper rungs in two categories, including sand saves. But, then again, he didn't get into a bunker very often.

Woods' high-handed rule of the game brings back memories of a long ago day when I was involved in the creation of the Golf All-America Awards. Admittedly, the idea wasn't that original, but really a spinoff of Walter Camp's All-America football awards in the early days of the game, when the Yales and the Harvards and other Ivy Leaguers dominated. Camp picked his players by position, best quarterback, best end, etc., and I applied this to golf by picking the Best Driver, the Best Fairway Woods Player, etc. There were eight awards in all, one for each club or group of clubs in the bag, right down to the putter.

We launched this at the time when Jack Nicklaus was riding high, and that led to our main problem. The tour players cast ballots to nominate players for various categories, with a committee making a final decision after the votes were tabulated. It was a good system, fair in every respect, except Nicklaus was such a great player that he would be at the head, or near the head, of almost every list with the exception of Short Irons. Jack's game around the green did not come up to the level of his overall play and he was the first to admit that.

A Golf All-America based on play in 2000 would likely run into a similar problem, with Woods topping almost every category. Some might say his putting is not quite as superb as the rest of his game. To respond to that I have this vignette of Gary Player sitting in the locker room, filling out his All-America ballot. Getting to the category of Best Putter, he paused and said: "Best putter? Well, who was the leading money winner? Jack Nicklaus, right? Then Jack Nicklaus is the best putter. You can't win all that money without being a good putter."

Woods is not only the year's top money winner, but he's won more than twice the amount of the runner-up, and more than No. 2 and No. 3 added together. Best putter? How would you pick it?

There was much tub-thumping for the World Golf Federation's GOLF 20/20: Vision for the Future, a three-day conference held in Florida prior to Thanksgiving for ideas on how to "grow the game." The Federation runs the World Golf Hall of Fame and a variety of golf charity programs, and the conference was knee-jerk reaction to reports that the game's growth is slowing. Some of the game's best thinkers were on hand for the brainstorming sessions, but it remains to be seen if any viable solutions were placed on the table.

The National Golf Foundation, made up mostly of club manufacturers and golf industry people, conducted an annual Golf Summit for about a decade or more for the purpose of keeping a hand on the game's future. But little of substance came out of them, and there hasn't been one since 1994. It was the NFG's report, however, forecasting disturbing factors for the game in the days ahead that triggered action by the Federation.

The NFG report warned that:

• Play in the U.S. is unlikely to exceed 1 to 1.5 percent growth rates in the years ahead.

• There is a "latent demand" among 40 million people who would like to play, others who used to play and would like to try the game again, and those who would like to play more often.

• Of 51 million young people, ages 5-17, only 5 percent have any contact with golf.

• That of the 3 million who start to play annually, at least 70 percent quit the game within a year.

• Course construction is outpacing growth in participation and creating a "demand gap."

There's not much new there. As long as I can remember, golf has always been burdened by the fact that it costs so much to take up the game and play. And, of course, it is a difficult game to learn, and progress is slow unless you practice and play often.

The golf boom in the U.S. was brought about largely by the impact of President Dwight D. Eisenhower practicing putting on the White House lawn, and the arrival of the charismatic Arnold Palmer, charging down the fairways. And I'll toss in a tip of the hat to television's warm embrace of the game even when it was so expensive to produce.

With Nicklaus and superstars like the Merry Mex, Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller and Tom Watson following Palmer's blazing trail, the game just grew and grew until courses became jammed. On the ladies' side there was the personable Nancy Lopez and some pretty leggy youngsters like Laura Baugh and Jan Stephenson cavorting on the living room screen and attracting a new audience.

Oddly enough, the warning from the NGF comes at a time when some of the negatives have already been turned around. The wild ride of Tiger Woods over the past two years has given the game a new high in excitement. He has had special appeal for youngsters and has caused TV ratings to jump more than 30 percent when he's in contention in a tournament - and when isn't he!

In terms of the difficulty in learning to play the game, there is a wealth of self-help available at every turn on TV, on videotape, in magazines and books. And the golf clubs and balls in the marketplace today have been designed to help the golfer play better sooner.

Thus, the one bugaboo that remains is the cost of playing. The price tags on golf clubs have reached shocking levels, and there doesn't seem to be any ceiling in sight on green fees, club dues and initiation charges. And even in a robust economy, this is the barrier that will continue to keep the game's growth figures down.

Is this likely to change? Probably not. The leaders of the golf equipment industry fill most of the seats at the various seminars and summits - probably at GOLF: 20/20, too, and they're fully aware of the problem. But they keep hoping another solution can be found one that won't affect those attractive figures on their bottom line.

There are some very commendable charitable programs in place aimed at providing an affordable access to golf, especially for kids. One of them is the First Tee program. The World Golf Federation oversees it, and the PGA of America and the U.S. Golf Association are generous supporters, and its growth has been very impressive. But, once attracted to the game, will they be able to afford it?

The club and ball makers have turned out great new products, using the advances in technology to the fullest. The challenge now should be how to make them more affordable to more people.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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