In a tournament with only 18 players and no official money or FedEx Cup points on the line, Time Inc. reported that Tiger Woods' return to competitive golf resulted in the highest opening round television ratings since the British Open in July, excluding the Ryder Cup. Thursday's ratings were 190% higher than last year's and Friday's increased by over 200% over 2015. The higher ratings continued over the weekend, despite Woods falling from contention. For anyone that thinks the 40 year-old former world number one is no longer relevant, those numbers should speak for themselves. Those increases literally mean that Tiger, by himself, can outdraw the rest of the field, one that included Jordan Spieth, U.S. Open champ Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Justin Rose, red hot Hidecki Matsuyama, PGA champion Jimmy Walker and Ricky Fowler, among others. Those ratings are staggering in light of Tiger's 15 month absence from the PGA Tour. And from what I saw of his play, there was nothing other than a little rust and some fatigue by Sunday that indicated he isn't fully ready to compete for tournaments and majors in 2017. Sure, he struggled to a 4-over 76 on Sunday, but he still led the field in birdies for the week, undone by just a few errant shots that resulted in double bogeys.
With the two biggest draws in American golf in their forties, I guess it's both refreshing that 46 year-old Phil Mickelson and Woods are still energizing fans. However, it's also a bit distressing that despite great young stars in the game, it takes those older guys to be in the hunt to generate significant viewership. Perhaps, and I haven't really heard this point of view, although it might have been expressed, we have too many great, young players. Besides the ones I mentioned above, you can add Rory McIlroy and Jason Day to the list. Is it better television when you have just a small handful of players capable of capturing majors and captivating audiences? Arnold Palmer, who we sadly lost earlier this year, was singularly mesmerizing, especially when he was battling the few players that were competing at the top of leaderboard, like Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Billy Casper. In the late 60's and early 70's we saw Nicklaus emerge, taking on Tom Weiskopf, Johnny Miller and of course Tom Watson and Lee Trevino. Tiger's run from 1997 to 2008 will always be one of the most dominant in golf, or any individual sport, for that matter. Interest in golf skyrocketed, ratings were at all time highs and sponsorship money poured in, creating mammoth purses on the PGA Tour.
The recent Ryder Cup, despite some fan issues and the lack of Tiger Woods, at least as a player, generated a lot of interest. That's probably due more to the format and nationalism, so it will be interesting to see if it translates to ratings and attendance increases on the PGA Tour. But back to Tiger and his prospects for 2017. I've previously written that a lot will depend on his health, and from what he showed in the Bahamas, that doesn't appear to be an issue at the moment. His swing was impressive, but clearly a little slower and slightly less violent than previous versions. The most impressive aspect of his game was his distance control, something that has always set him apart, and what he had struggled with the last couple of years that he was somewhat active on tour. One reason he made so many birdies, 24 over four rounds, was that he left himself makeable birdie putts. The other reason was that he made the putts.
Can Tiger win again on tour? Absolutely. Will he win another major? From what I saw this week, and if he stays healthy, I don't see any reason why he can't contend, and if he can contend, he can win. He might have finished 15th out of 18 golfers this past weekend, but when you look beyond the scores, there was a lot to like and look forward to.
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