Friday, June 26, 2015

Golf: A new “golden age” or reversion to the stone age?

I admit that before Tiger Woods, I had no interest whatever in golf. All I knew about golf was that I was terrible at it the few times I was forced to go to a golf course in my youth, and that it was boring to watch on television, and that it was my impression that golf was a pastime for retired people and people with money to waste and had exclusive access to the clubhouse. The bottom line was that before Tiger Woods, I didn’t give a damn about golf or the people who played it.

But that changed somewhat when Tiger Woods emerged onto the scene. The media treated him the like the Second Coming, and why not? Here was this young (mostly) black man who was clearly not one of society’s “privileged” class, who was threatening to break down the walls of golf’s privileged, exclusionary society. And he wasn’t merely going to be one the best, but he was going to be the Michael Jordon of golf, establishing a new paradigm of greatness, making white golfers look like they were the second-class citizens. Thus Woods represented (whether he accepted it or not) everyone who felt excluded from the halls of power and privilege, who by sheer force of will and talent broke down the door—not just for him, but for all those who felt the outsider.

That is why golf’s new young “superstars” will never have the same impact on the public imagination as Woods had. They are just another generation of the privilege class. Sure, golf fanatics will call them the long-awaited “changing of the guard” as Woods falls off the map, but others will see them as the latest of the “great white hopes” will succeed only because Woods, because of injury and age, has seen his glory days pass. There greatest fear was that Woods might herald the start of an influx of black golfers who take their sport away from them. 

But there was never any chance of that happening, and Woods has never recovered from either the injury that made his last major championship victory, the 2008 U.S. Open, such a courageous one, or the damage to his reputation and fall from grace following revelations of his marital problems. It hardly seems even ironic that Tom Brady, a white football star, was left untouched by the media when he dumped his pregnant first wife for a super model.

The reality is that while it is good for the hardcore golf fan that Jordan Spieth, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson and Roy McIlroy have risen to the top of the golf heap—which means nothing save that they are better than the competition—none of these players has anything close to the societal and cultural impact of Woods. Not even close. And that means that both golf’s popularity and revenues will take a hit—perhaps it will be a slow slide so long as Woods is around—even the PGA brass think that his “shelf-life” as a money-maker for the tour for another decade—and slide back to be of interest only to the committed golf fanatic. 

But there are of course those who actually thought Woods’ success was a danger to the game—or to the notion of white supremacy—and refuse to face the truth. Take for example the Bleacher Reports’ Tom Weir: “Spieth and McIlroy are rendering the old guard irrelevant, and it’s a joy to see. Monday morning conversations about a golf tournament are far more enjoyable when they focus on triumphs rather than a fading star’s latest round of 80.” 

Weir must be one of those “traditional” types who bemoaned Woods’ dominance of a “white” sport. Of course it is a “joy” to see his presumed demise, with the game back in the hands of where it “belongs.” Well, who follows polo or lacrosse in this country? Nobody, because they are just “country club” activities for people who think these pastimes are for “superior” people—and what is more “country club” than golf? 

Others are less sanguine about the impact of a Tigerless golf world. Jake Simpson wrote in the Atlantic:

For more than 15 years, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods has been the engine fueling the exponential growth of golf's revenues, purses, and endorsement deals, and he's a bigger draw for casual fans than the rest of the sport combined. For starters, he's brought in younger fans through his sheer cult of personality on the golf course. Woods, at the peak of his powers, was cool like Jordan or Ali—he can’t be compared to any other golfer in terms of his effect on the sport’s popularity among the masses.

Sara Germano of the Wall Street Journal wrote:

For the fifth year, overall participation in golf fell in 2014 as measured by the number of U.S. individuals who reported playing on a course at least once, according to Sports & Fitness Industry Association data. But the participation rates of people aged 18 to 34 fell roughly 13% in 2013 from 2009, while their rates for other active sports like running rose 29%, according to SFIA data.

Jason Notte, writing for Market Watch,  noted  that while “certain corners of the sports and business worlds are elated”  by the development that “new blood” is driving endorsements for their products, “using dog whistles such as ‘clean cut’ to describe Woods’ would-be replacements and “all-American” to describe Masters winner Jordan Speith — this isn’t how it works...Millennials grew up watching Tiger Woods’ near-invincible run and, when he isn’t around, they have no problem abandoning golf altogether. According to Nielsen, 63% of people who watch golf on television are 55 or older. A whopping 87% of golf viewers are over the age of 35, making golf’s audience the oldest in professional sports just ahead of Nascar (with 77% of racing viewers age 35 or older). Compared to the 45% of the NBA’s audience that’s under 35, golf looks gray and out of touch.” 

Notte also noted that places Woods’ “value to the sport at somewhere around $15 billion. That’s 22% of the $68.8 billion golf industry and roughly a quarter of the status quo that isn’t coming back if millennials and other casual fans tune out golf altogether.”

I’ve got news for those people who think that Jordan Spieth is the new “golden child” of golf: The “millennials”—those born between 1980 and 2000—whose formative years occurred during Woods’ rise to prominence, a symbol that anything was possible if you had the talent no matter what the odds, breaking down the barriers that prevented entry into previously closed doors—see those doors closing again, and the same old faces in control again. I have already confessed that I became a “fan” of golf solely because of Woods; every weekend I checked the leaderboard to see only one name: Tiger Woods. I didn’t care one whit about the other players. 

But with Woods out of the picture, I have no interest in golf whatever, and there are many, many “casual” fans like me. To me, if Spieth and McIlroy become “superstars,” it will only because of the lack of the poor quality of their competition, and the desperate need for someone—anyone—to escape the long shadow of Woods. 

I am one of those who occasionally took a peek at sports headlines that suggested  that Woods was in “contention” to win a tournament, and if so probably watched the weekend  rounds of a tournament if he had any chance of winning. Otherwise, my interest in golf was and is close to zilch—and no doubt I will be joined by many if not most of those people who found Woods such an inspiration for breaking down barriers. McIlroy and Speith, no matter how “great” they are perceived to be, can never elevate themselves beyond the course the way Woods has done. For me and many others, they are just a reversion to the “old” guard, not the new.

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