A little over a week ago I caught a segment of Tee Time, a talk radio show hosted by Steve Czaban. If you don’t know Czaban, he’s a sports radio guy who primarily co-hosts a weekly show with Andy Pollin called The Sports Reporters. However, he happens to be a scratch handicap and knows a thing or two about the game of golf. During this particular day, Czaban was discussing the current state of the PGA Tour, the prosperity it experienced during the Tiger Woods dominance, and what would need to happen for the tour to continue to grow should Tiger fail to find his game again. Considering that all year-long it’s been only questions focusing on Tiger and his “struggles” on and off the course and not the future of the tour, I found this to be an interesting question. But it was Czaban’s next statement that made the topic really become seriously interesting to me as a fan of golf.

Czaban ran off a list of the top five money leaders on tour for the 1995 season – the year before Tiger turned pro:

  1. Greg Norman
  2. Billy Mayfair
  3. Lee Janzen
  4. Corey Pavin
  5. Steve Elkington

Other than Greg Norman, I don’t think you can tell any of those guys even has a pulse by watching them play. They’re all insanely boring! Watching any pairing of those five on Sunday was often times mundane, even to golf enthusiasts. We’ll get back to this later, but to further illustrate my (and Czaban’s) point, I want to look at their earnings during 1995 and those of the top five money leaders ten years later.

1995:

  1. Greg Norman – 1,654,959
  2. Billy Mayfair – 1,543,192
  3. Lee Janzen – 1,378,966
  4. Corey Pavin – 1,340,079
  5. Steve Elkington – 1,254,352

2005:

  1. Tiger Woods – 10,628,024
  2. Vijay Singh – 8,017,336
  3. Phil Mickelson – 5,699,605
  4. Jim Furyk – 4,225,369
  5. David Toms – 3,962,013

Before we start, let me just say that the dramatic increase in earnings is NOT due to inflation. Don’t even start with that nonsense.  It was Tiger’s ridiculous winning percentage and amazing shot making ability that attracted corporate sponsorships and tripled television ratings.  Those are the real reasons there were approximately ten millionaires on tour in ’95 and over 50 by 2005.  People wanted to see this young phenom dominate and the corporate world wanted him to be the face of their products. It was honestly the financial golden age of golf.  Everyone involved in the PGA Tour, from commissioner Finchem to your average journeyman, profited in some way to Tiger’s surge. But I don’t want to act like this is some kind of new revelation.  There have been countless articles written over the last decade or so that point to Tiger as the blessing for this financial golden age. No, we’re going to focus on another aspect of Tiger’s game; one that can be easier to replace than his actual game itself.

Not since Arnold Palmer has a PGA player been both charismatic and dominant as Tiger before this year. It’s extremely hard to find an athlete with both features.  Often times professional athletes who rank at the top of their respective sport aren’t extremely charismatic (Singh or Els), or an athlete does possess the charisma but doesn’t experience the success necessary warrant mass attention (Serrrrrgio). It’s a difficult pairing to find, and that’s what makes it so special when we’re lucky enough to witness these runs first-hand.  Whether you find yourself rooting against them – like so many people were when Tiger wouldn’t stop winning at such a young age – or fist pumping along with them after draining a long par putt, the fact is that you’re drawn into the moment. You’re beer in the fridge can wait that extra moment; you  order delivery on Sunday from a place you normally wouldn’t, just to avoid missing 45 minutes of the final round; you watch the entire final round of a major when the leader started 9 strokes ahead and won by 16.  They’re rare moments, larger than the game, and you know when you’re caught up in them. They’re moments that only Tiger and Arnie could provide on the regular, while other great players are lucky to provide once over a career.  And that’s what makes them so easily marketable, propelling the popularity of their sport, and even the sport itself, to the next level. 

It’s now, in the post Tiger affair era, that professional golf stands to take a step backwards for the first time in nearly 15 years. The financial golden age is coming to an end. Sponsors either have run or are running away from Woods faster than they swarmed him at the close of the millenium.  Though he’s played extremely well this year considering the circumstances, his game and image have undoubtedly taken a hit. And in turn, the PGA Tour has taken a hit.  Obviously, no one will count out the possibility of Woods returning to any resemblence of his old dominant form in the near future. However, it’s inevitable that at some point someone will have to carry the torch if professional golf is going to continue to grow across the world. Luckily for golf, and thanks to Woods, there’s a plethora of immensely talented youthful players currently spread across the globe.  From Japan to Europe to the US, young professionals and amateurs are waiting for their opportunity to be the next great thing in golf. The only question is do any of them possess the charisma necessary to attract a new, untapped fan base, while still wooing the old, spoiled, and often critical one? 

Let’s hope so.

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