Well, he’s back. And he can still golf pretty well. So much for speculation on Tiger Woods missing the cut at The Master’s.
The debate about Tiger’s return at The Master’s has sparked some interesting conversations and feedback. One point everyone seems to agree on is that we do not question Tiger’s choice to come back at The Master’s as being a good thing for Tiger. I think that is clear. From Southern manners to the tightly controlled crowd, it makes sense. The question for this debate is, does it make sense from the perspective of the PGA Tour.
The importance of television ratings cannot be undersold. Loyal Homer did an excellent job in his argument of defining that point with the numerical context of an 18 percent dip in ratings without Tiger. The lack of “buzz” at an event is anecdotal and potentially circumstantial. While I am sure it was there, it is hard to judge anything based on a feeling about buzz at an event won by an aging golfer. The point that 650,000 folks watched the Monday press conference is fairly remarkable. Whether he is loved or hated now, at least we know that Tiger is still interesting. People tune in for interesting.
Another valid point from Loyal Homer is that the number of questions other golfers will field about Tiger will probably dip since Tiger can field the majority of questions about Tiger again. An interesting potential byproduct – what if the other golfers, without distraction, begin to pull away from Tiger on the course? Make no mistake, for the PGA Tour to remain successful while absorbing Tiger’s return, Tiger still needs to be good. REALLY good. But the groundwork is laid, though no one in the history of golf can focus like Tiger Woods.
Bleacher Fan highlighted some interesting comments from Augusta National Chairman Bill Payne. But, it is hard to tell at this stage if his comments are insightful or full of denial. My gut tells me they are full of denial. The implication that The Master’s – and on a grander scale, the PGA Tour as a whole – does not need Tiger Woods to survive is arrogant and disconnected. Perhaps the PGA Tour could limp along in obscurity as it did before Tiger leapt onto the stage. But the PGA Tour – and Payne – are frustrated with Tiger because his actions forced them to contemplate a scenario they likely never believed would confront them – a Tiger-less PGA Tour. I disagree with Bleacher Fan’s assessment that, because the golf world is lukewarm to Tiger’s return, that the Tour cannot survive it, or even thrive because of it. As the money and attention start pouring in again, the nobility and privilege woven into Payne’s words will be unsurprisingly suppressed.
For me, the Vick-Woods comparison is very difficult to pull off. It’s like comparing cats and dogs (ha!). I also resist the urge to anoint Vick’s comeback to the NFL a successful one. Vick’s actions upon his comeback were tightly controlled and barely visible – unless they were arranged to be visible. What helped is that Vick wasn’t a good player anymore, and he wasn’t the savior of the NFL. The NFL did not, and does not, need Vick to remain successful. That is the NFL way. The Tiger way IS the PGA Tour way. The Tour desperately needs Tiger to maintain the standing investors enjoy and expect.
As Bleacher Fan writes, one obvious difference in how the returns of Vick and Woods are different is in how the public and media are handling them. After one interview from 60 Minutes, Vick earned respect back and was convincingly contrite. Questions about Tiger’s authenticity and contrition persist. And stories like this one will endure. Whether Tiger was really just snapping some photos with his phone, or texting Elin, we will never know. Could be a hookup. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with Tiger’s comeback – but it is also the reason he will always garner attention. His camp controls everything so tightly that snapped pictures of him smiling at his phone – the same phone that he used to make a panicked call to the woman who arranged his “romantic liaisons” – will always be questioned. Vick, and the NFL, do not have to deal with that.
To Bleacher Fan’s point, the media and fan response will transition to asking questions about what Tiger is doing instead of what he did. And Bleacher Fan is correct that the approach from Tiger’s camp likely will not change. Their first reaction is to squash and control. Consider the alleged story about the National Enquirer agreeing to shelve a Tiger exposé several months ago so Tiger would appear in a sister publication, Men’s Fitness. The persistence of “media everywhere” and the accountability of social media – regardless of its accuracy – will keep Tiger’s exploits in the headlines indefinitely. While that is not ideal for an entity like the PGA Tour, which believes it thrives on gentlemanly standards and manners, the Tour must accept its new reality.
Even if the PGA Tour can no longer control the type of attention it gets – like a three year old who throws a tantrum to get his parents attention – it will still get noticed because of that Tiger fella, good or bad. Tiger will continue to get attention, thus the PGA Tour will continue to get attention. Ratings will be up, interest will be up, and revenue will be up. Traditional golf fans will be angry and lash back at the inevitable changes, but it is unavoidable.
As Bleacher Fan stated in his argument, the PGA Tour will continue to get a lot of attention because of the approach from Woods’ camp. Where he and I differ, however, and why Loyal Homer wins this debate, is that the attention will not crush the PGA Tour or suck the life out of it. The Tour will adapt and thrive. And Tiger will remain a big part of that. Any attention is good attention. Just like the three year old throwing the tantrum.
In short, the PGA Tour needs Tiger to remain interesting. No Tiger means no public interest… which means no revenue. Maintaining public interest trumps everything, and Tiger is the key. Like it or not, the PGA Tour made the decision to hitch itself to Tiger’s wagon a long time ago. And this scandal is survivable. In fact, it is an opportunity for growth.
What is clear to me through all of the hubbub around Tiger’s return is that how the PGA Tour handles the return matters. A lot. If they over-use Tiger in their event promotion, a lot of casual fans will be turned off. If Tiger dominates the Master’s, as he has in the past, the Tour will have a marketing decision to make – are “things” back to normal, or should Tiger be the newest villain on the block that everyone loves to hate.
While golf is certainly not basketball, it is no secret that the NBA was saved by the rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the early 1980s. There were clearly two opposing sides and fans lined up behind the side that best suited their respective preferences. While race was a factor in Magic-Bird, and race will not be a significant component here, the Tour still has an opportunity to turn this into a rebirth. Continue to make the story interesting and people will tune in. Guard against the short-term value of a boost in ratings from a marquee event. Be smart about managing Tiger’s presence and promotion and folks will watch – no matter how they feel about Tiger.
Perhaps it is unfair to assign the word “heal” to Tiger’s re-emergence on the Tour. To heal implies that the Tour will return to what it once was. I think it’s clear that the Tour will no longer ever be the same. But the opportunity to turn this attention into an easily understood story that has the capacity to draw casual fans close to the game cannot be dismissed. For that reason, I believe Tiger’s presence on the Tour is a good thing. While a definitional healing may not be in the cards, the PGA Tour has a chance to recover and reinvent. A chance it would not have without Tiger’s return at Augusta.