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6th January 2010

Make no mistake – a Tigerless golf world is bad for business | Lawrence Donegan

The PGA Tour might use this moment to readdress its relationship with its most important player

The 2010 PGA Tour season begins on the Hawaiian island of Maui later today and the only guarantees are the television pictures will be spectacular and the private life of Tiger Woods will scarcely merit a mention.

As much as the world outside professional golf continues to obsess about the public disgrace of the world’s No1 player, the world of professional golf itself would have us believe that Woods’s personal travails, and his indefinite leave of absence, is unfortunate but hardly a fatal blow to the sport he has dominated for more than a decade.

“There were two other times in the last three years where he [Woods] took a prolonged leave of absence and on both occasions we came through it very well,” says Ty Votaw, a senior spokesman for the PGA Tour.

“It isn’t ideal that he isn’t around, but maybe it behoves everyone in the sport to explore other stories and look to other players. People say Tiger Woods is the greatest ever but I have never been in that boat. There have been great players in the past and there will be great players in the future,” says Brandel Chamblee, a commentator on the Golf Channel.

“When Arnold Palmer stopped playing the PGA Tour didn’t grind to a halt. Tiger is a great player and he will be back at some point, but maybe this is a chance for other players to shine,” says David Yates, president of Gaylord Sports Management, which represents 20 PGA Tour players, including Phil Mickelson.

True. True. And true again. But in this instance three truths don’t necessarily add up to a complete picture.

Woods will be missed, and to a far greater extent than those within the game are prepared to admit, albeit for perfectly understandable reasons. It is bad for business, especially in this economy, to make too much of the absence of your biggest star and the lack of what marketing gurus would call “cross-over appeal” when it comes to the vast majority of golfers. The difficulty comes in quantifying exactly what Woods’s disappearing act will cost the sport.

Figures ranging from $2bn to $8bn have been bandied around but they have quickly been debunked, or revealed as guesswork. “The extent of the financial fallout, which is no doubt severe, is impossible to calculate because golf’s overall wherewithal goes far beyond Woods,” says David Carter, the executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “Without his steady play and ability to deliver TV ratings and galleries full of business people, the people associated with the sport will lose potential revenue across the board.”

Chamblee suggest that from the point-of-view of television networks broadcasting PGA Tour events, who charge $80,000-a-minute when Woods isn’t playing and $120,000-a-minute when he is (because of the increased audience he attracts), the losses could be $100m (£62m) “assuming he was out for an entire season”. As for Woods himself, the financial cost of his complicated private life has already been enormous and it is likely to grow. “Based on what has happened so far, with sponsors already dropping him, I’d estimate his losses to be between $40m and $70m a year,” says Michael Neuman, of the New York-based marketing company, Amplify Sports. “And no matter what he does when he comes back, I don’t think he will ever return to where he was before when it comes to earnings potential – there is just too much risk attached to Tiger Woods as far as corporations are concerned.

“As for the sport itself – in terms of ticket sales, TV viewers and equipment being sold; in the short-term, the outlook isn’t good. In the longer term, watch out; when Tiger comes back, interest will go off the charts. People won’t be able to get enough of him.”

Maybe so, but right now no one is getting any of Woods. Since crashing his car on 27 November, he has not been seen in public, although he is known to have met with Florida Highway Patrol officers three days later. “Where the hell is he?” the PGA Tour player Pat Perez asked this week.

It is a good question, to which the most accurate answer is no one knows, although there is plenty of speculation. Last Sunday, a platoon of photographers rushed to Donald Trump’s hotel in New York after Woods was reported to have checked in (he had not). “I’ve heard on the grapevine that he has been hitting golf balls already,” says Chamblee.

But where? When? There have been “sightings” in Arizona, California and a few other places besides – none of them confirmed. One normally reliable source suggested this week that he had never left his house at Isleworth, Florida. Another said he would “definitely” return at the Masters, while a third said he would “probably” be out for an extended period of time, perhaps for an entire season.

Even by his own obsessive standards of privacy, Woods has surpassed himself this time. What is known is that he has changed his phone number and is not replying to texts (hardly surprising, given his most recent experiences in that communications medium). Some of those who have been closest to him in the past, the likes of the former NBA player Charles Barkley, whose company Woods apparently kept in several Las Vegas nightclubs, have not spoken to him. While others who might have been expected to have been in contact with him, including the PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, have kept their distance.

“I don’t know when I would talk to him,” Finchem said. “We pledged our commitment to give him privacy, so that would include me trying to talk to him.”

Maybe so, but there is a mood afoot that the PGA Tour might be distancing itself ever so slightly from Woods; that while acknowledging his importance to its financial wellbeing, in the recent past and in the future, it might actually seize this moment to readdress its relationship with its most important player.

Woods, by virtue of his dominance on the golf course and his ability to attract corporate sponsorship and the interest of the casual sports fan, has long held the upper hand in his dealings with Finchem and company. That might no longer be the case. In his moment of greatest personal crisis, perhaps Woods will come to appreciate the fact that the PGA Tour offered him the stage upon which he built his lucrative “brand” . If he doesn’t, then perhaps there are others who will be more grateful.

Traditionally, the field for this week’s event in Maui is limited to players who won PGA Tour events last year, which means there is no place for the three players who have been identified by the tour as the “next big thing”; the Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy, the 18-year-old Japanese player Ryo Ishikawa and Rickie Fowler, a former US Walker Cup player who impressed many when he turned pro late last year. Nothing would please those who run the tour more than one or more of this youthful threesome winning early in the season, or at least measuring up to the hype that is about to come their way.

The future starts now, as the old saying goes. Or at least it does until Tiger Woods decides he wants to play golf again. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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