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Masters viewership down 28%, can golf survive without Tiger Woods?


CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz is fond of referring to the Masters golf tournament as "a tradition unlike any other." For the past 20 years a big part of that tradition has been Tiger Woods. Now for the first time since 1995 the Masters is Woods-less thanks to Tiger's back injury, and the tournament is taking a TV ratings hit to the tune of 28% (in the first day coverage on ESPN). Can golf survive without Tiger?

He hasn’t won in Augusta since 2005 but that doesn’t mean Woods’ withdrawal from this year's Masters didn’t send a chill down spines of CBS executives. Whatever you may think of Tiger he’s been synonymous with the Masters since he made it his first major tournament victory in 1997. Then just 21, Tiger won by a record 12 strokes and sparked an explosion in the sport’s popularity nationwide.

Despite some recent disappointments on the course, Tiger is still the number one player in golf and the most recognizable athlete in sports. Not only did Woods’ announcement that he was skipping Augusta to get back surgery make every member of Generation X feel much older, it also killed most of our desire to watch golf at all. We just saw the Undertaker lose at Wrestlemania and David Letterman retire. There’s only so much the children of the 80's can take.

Yahoo’s Mike Santoli says the casual fan is probably going to take a pass on watching this weekend but there’s no reason to lose any sleep worrying over the problems of CBS (CBS) or the membership of Augusta National.

“The TV audience tends to be smaller when (Tiger’s) not in contention, so if he’s not even in the tournament obviously it’s going to matter,” says Santoli. “I don’t think it kicks in to a business problem for anybody else involved but it just kind of shows how tenuous the broader public's interest in golf really is.”

The Tiger Effect

The three highest rated Masters of all time have surrounded Tiger (his wins in 1997 and 2001 and 2010 when he was in contention on Sunday less than 6 months after his infamous car crash / exile / divorce). The average Sunday ratings the four years Tiger won the tournament were 11.6. In 2012 when Woods was never in contention and had his worst ever finish, CBS only pulled an 8. In 2009 Nielsen issued a study showing that ratings for dropped nearly 50% when Tiger pulled out of an event where he was expected to play.

The impact Tiger has had on the industry as a whole is almost impossible to grasp. Tiger Mania triggers a massive wave of golf interest. According to the National Golf Federation the number of people calling themselves golfers rose nearly 20% to a peak of 30.6 million in 2003, just after the peak of Tiger’s glory. Along with that came a top in the number of courses built, rising 25% from 1990 to 2005. In 2000, when Tiger was winning three of the four major tournaments on his way to a Tiger Slam ,the number of rounds played in the U.S. peaked at over 518 million.

All the numbers have been drifting lower since. In 2012 463 million rounds were played, most of them by a group of self-described golfers that had dwindled to 25.7 million. Courses are being closed on a net basis and are expected to continue to decline by about 10% per year through 2020.

More frightening for golf fans, the group of so-called hardcore golfers playing being eight and 24 rounds per year has dropped from 19.7 million in both 1998 and 2000 to well under 15 million today. If a sport can’t get it’s devotees to play more than two times a month it’s got problems.

The Post Tiger World

In 1996 Tiger Woods’ dad, Earl told Sports Illustrated that "Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity. … He is the Chosen One. He'll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations." No one really took Earl seriously but they didn’t laugh right to his face either.

Tiger probably isn’t finished, he is still the number one player in the world, but not many players have come back from back surgery and returned to top form. His career to date has been insanely great but it’s fair to say Tiger didn’t change the world or even establish himself as the greatest golfer in history.

As it turned out, Tiger was merely the greatest athlete of my generation. For all his flaws (arrogant, mean, cold, childish etc.) Tiger has raised hundreds of millions for charity and redefined the sports landscape. He didn’t, however, lead a flood of minorities into golf. He’s one of the only minorities in the PGA Tour and there aren’t many coming down the pipe.

Tiger has been the champion our generation deserves. Like it or not. This weekend will be much less interesting in his absence.

Get well soon, Mr. Woods.