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Truth: Golf's better when Tiger Woods is in the mix

Quick test, right now: text your friends and ask how many of them tuned in to see Tiger Woods on Sunday at the British Open.

Now see how many of them know who won the tournament.

If your circle of friends is anything like, well, the rest of America, the first number’s going to dwarf the second one. (Spoiler: it was Francesco Molinari.) It’s been this way for more than 20 years now, ever since that day in April 1997 when a 21-year-old Woods first throttled Augusta National. And even now, when golf’s talent base is as broad as it’s ever been, when half a dozen remarkable players jockey at the top of every leaderboard, Woods just has to stroll onto the course in his Sunday red and the audience belongs to him.

Tiger Woods in red and black, once again. (AP)

Call it the Grandmother Test: your grandmother (most likely, don’t @ me) doesn’t know who Jordan Spieth or Justin Thomas are, doesn’t much care that Dustin Johnson missed the weekend at Carnoustie or that Rickie Fowler can’t close the deal on major Sundays. But she knows Tiger Woods, and she – along with hundreds of thousands of others – will tune in when, and only when, Tiger’s in the field and making noise.

Or, in Twitter terms:

Via Twitter

Naturally, Woods’ very presence in a tournament sends a certain segment of golf fandom into fits. “We’re sick of Tiger Woods!” wail golf purists and internet commenters. They gripe that he’s irrelevant,  that coverage fixates on Woods at the expense of the poor neglected legions of other golfers – even though Woods has as many majors on his own as all of the world’s top 12 players combined.

But rather than catering to hurt feelings, let’s focus instead on facts. As always, the loudest voices don’t represent the majority. Even though he hasn’t won in five years, Woods’ presence still brings huge ratings bumps to every tournament he enters, especially those where he’s even remotely competitive. A quick sample from this year alone:

• The Farmers Insurance Open in January, where Woods finished T23, saw increases of 53 percent and 38 percent on its Saturday and Sunday numbers, with Sunday bringing the tournament’s highest ratings in five years.

• The Valspar Championship in March, where Woods finished in a tie for second, was the highest-rated non-Masters event since the 2014 PGA Championship – higher than any U.S. Open or British Open in the Spieth/JT/DJ Era – and the highest for a non-major PGA Tour event since the 2013 Players (which Woods won).

• The Arnold Palmer Championship, also in March, saw a bounce of 136 percent on Sunday over the Tiger-less tournament in 2017. Woods finished in a tie for fifth place.

Hard truth: whatever airtime Woods gobbles up from lesser-known players, the vast majority of the audience either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. There are plenty of non-major, non-Tiger events for the golf hardcores to enjoy the sterling shotmaking and precision putting of [lesser-known players’ names redacted for courtesy’s sake]; when Tiger’s around, Tiger claims the spotlight.

Why? Three reasons. First, he deserves it. No player since Arnold Palmer – and certainly no player since – has connected with the public in the way Woods did when he was in his prime. Woods transcended the sport, opened doors that golf’s elites had kept nailed shut, and added a zero or two to the net worth of every player in his wake. (Some puritanical types still complain about Woods’ late-2000s infidelity scandals, as if they’re reason enough to discount everything he’s done on the golf course – and without in any way excusing those, you’ve got to wonder if they’re as outraged about similar scandals involving American celebrities even better known than Woods.)

Second, Woods is, at worst, the second-best player in the history of the sport. When he was at his prime, when he was winning majors by the armload, Tiger vs. the field wasn’t even a viable bet. That’s a shadow the 2018-model Woods won’t ever outrun, and neither will anyone else. But every once in awhile, Woods has the ability to tap into that old juice, the way he did Saturday and early Sunday at Carnoustie.

He held a solo lead at a major for the first time since the 2009 PGA Championship, and for just a few moments, you started to believe. Maybe your memories of Woods clouded your mind – hell, maybe they clouded his, too – but for a brief moment on Sunday, it seemed not just possible, but likely that Woods would win his next major … and that’s not something any of us ever believed would happen again.

Third, 2018 Tiger Woods is nostalgia in human form. Never underestimate the power of nostalgia, of gateways to memories of days gone by. Hollywood has weaponized nostalgia; golf, more than any other sport, thrives on it. Many of the same cranks who gripe about Woods still hanging around also get misty-eyed about Nicklaus’s stunning old-man victory at the 1986 Masters – a Masters he won, in case you’ve forgotten, after a newspaper columnist wrote him off as old and in the way. Oh, and he was four years older than Woods is now when he won that, just in case you need a benchmark of how long this could last.

Seeing Woods in Sunday red and black is a primal sort of experience, a shortcut to a memory of a time when he was, quite simply, the best thing that sports had to offer. Imagine how much you’d give to see Michael Jordan fire off a few more fadeaway jumpers, or Ken Griffey Jr. take a few more home-run swings, or Jeff Gordon run a few more laps, or Brett Favre throw a few more bombs. Imagine how great it would feel to get a few more minutes watching your most beloved sports memories live again, and you start to get an idea of why so many aren’t willing to let Tiger go for any reason.

None of this is to take anything away from the game’s current greats. DJ and JT are generational talents, and McIlroy and Spieth are on a Hall of Fame trajectory. But they’re all second on the tee to Woods, and they will be as long as he’s playing. Golf’s a great sport, and it’s even better with Woods in the mix. That’s how it is, and that’s how it ought to be.
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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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