In the spring of 1997, a charismatic young golfer burst onto the scene, winning the Masters by 12 strokes, and in hushed tones golf fans talked of the next Jack Nicklaus. That golfer was -- of course -- Tiger Woods, and ever since it's seemed that every talented young golfer is forced to swim against the current of '97.
With Woods still on the outer edges of the spotlight after finishing tied for 17th at the 2015 Masters, 21-year-old winner Jordan Spieth has been thrust into the conversation of the “next Tiger.” But a group of young stars that includes Spieth, 20-year-old Rory McIlroy, 24-year-old Brooks Koepka and 24-year-old Patrick Reed could be poised to share space in the upper echelon of the game.
While the casual fan appreciates a top name dominating the news cycle, the game itself -- and the PGA -- should be fine, or even better off, without an immediate Woods replacement.
“Sports is driven by great feats as well as personalities and those are going to wax and wane over time,” said Victor Matheson, a professor of economics specializing in sports at the College of the Holy Cross. “The NBA didn’t collapse when Michael Jordan left. The PGA isn’t going to collapse when Tiger Woods leaves.”
Similar to the situation with Woods, ever since Michael Jordan retired (the first, second and third times), NBA fans have wondered about "the next Jordan" and if the league could prosper without the famous No. 23. Meanwhile, stars like Shaquille O'Neal, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Durant helped the game grow to the point where the average NBA franchise is now worth $1.1 billion, up from about $248 million when Jordan retired in 2003, Forbes says.
Strong TV Ratings
The television ratings for Saturday’s third round at the Masters -- the round when the competition starts to heat up -- were the best since 2011 and up 48 percent from last year, TV by the Numbers reports. While Woods played well Saturday, shooting a 68 and catapulting into fifth place, he was still 10 strokes behind Spieth. The ratings for the final round of the tournament increased 26 percent from 2014, averaging 14 million viewers, CNBC reported. The fact that people tuned in regardless of Woods' place on the leaderboard was a good sign for the game’s health.
It might be nearly impossible for a golfer -- like Spieth or McIlroy -- to become the next Woods, simply because of the way he changed the game. The goal for golf could be, however, to sustain the growth he caused. Woods, hitting the ball farther than the rest of the field and changing the way courses were designed, enjoyed success that was nearly unprecedented.
"He's more dominant over the guys he's playing against than I ever was over the ones I played against," said Nicklaus about Woods in 1997 to Sports Illustrated. "He's [able to drive the ball] so long, he reduces the course to nothing. Absolutely nothing."
At his peak, Woods held the trophy for all four major championships, something no golfer had ever done, in a feat dubbed the Tiger Slam. The field nowadays is much more competitive and ridiculously talented, with 20 players averaging at least 300 yards per drive. In 1997, only John Daly (302) averaged more than 300 yards per drive, with Woods second with a 294.8-yard average. No other player reached an average in the 290s.
Woods also brought new sponsors and a ton of money to golf, shifting the finances of the game. From 1990-1996 PGA tour purses grew an average of 3.4 percent per year, but from 1997-2008 -- or the peak Woods years -- purses grew an average of 9.3 percent per year, a study by Sports Intelligence says. The study found that the "Tiger effect" perhaps doubled prize money in that time frame, adding about $1.6 billion to players' pockets. It seems unlikely any one player could cause such a seismic shift in the game again, no matter how well they perform on the course.
“Basically, Tiger drove the popularity of the sport for 10 years,” Matheson said.
Golf might not even want a transcendent star like Woods to dominate the game. It could, instead, build off the generation inspired by that transcendence. As Nike’s latest McIlroy-Woods crossover ad goes to show, young golfers might have been inspired to play golf because of Woods’ ascendance, and have, in turn, provided a fertile crop of future stars.
“Tiger didn’t help [the PGA] plant one tree,” said Tom O’Grady, chief creative officer of Gameplan Creative, a Chicago sports marketing firm. “He helped [the PGA] plant a forest of players.”
Golf, in fact, might actually benefit more from a strong group of players, like McIlroy or Spieth, in lieu of a top dog, because it would add stability at the top of the leaderboard. If that group of players can build rivalries and compete most weekends, then interest in golf could remain strong -- as this year’s Masters ratings seemed to show.
If one person cannot top the game like Woods once did, O'Grady pointed out that a “four- or five-headed monster” could usher in a new wave for golf, with more than one pillar to shoulder the game. “You’re never going to have a situation where one person falters … [then] the TV’s just get turned off,” O’Grady said of that possibility.
Matheson compared that vision of golf’s future to the last decade of tennis, with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic winning 35 of 41 Grand Slam titles since 2005. It's a vision of sustained excellence at the top, with a deep roster of stars, even if there isn't yet one person to completely take the mantle. A once-in-a-generation talent comes, by definition, every 10 to 20 years or so, Matheson pointed out. It might be easier to bet on a group of stars to carry the game. But, then again, the next generational talent can ascend at any point.
“You could have written the obituary for the NBA when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird left," Matheson said. "Then lo and behold you have Michael Jordan.”