Tiger Woods’s status as a drawcard appears safe, even if the golf titles and top ranking are gone.
Woods relinquished his last remaining championship yesterday at the Australian Masters, a final-round charge at the Victoria Golf Club failing to prevent him from finishing a calendar year without a tournament win for the first time.
Following a year of personal and professional upheaval that included divorce and the loss of sponsors and his record run atop the golf rankings, the Melbourne event was well placed as a barometer of Woods’s appeal, tournament promoters said.
“From what we’ve seen he’s lost none of his ability to pull a crowd,” Tony Roosenburg, who’s promoted golf events including the Australian PGA Championship for 30 years, said in an interview. “At the end of the day these tournaments are still built around Tiger. If anything, his troubles made him more interesting because he seems more human.”
Less than two weeks after winning the 2009 Masters at nearby Kingston Heath, Woods entered a turbulent 12 months that began with a single-car accident outside his Florida home in the early hours of Nov. 27.
Since then, the 14-time major champion admitted to repeated marital infidelity, leading to the end of his marriage to Elin Nordegren and the loss of sponsors including Accenture Plc and Procter & Gamble Co.’s Gillette razors. His 281-week run atop the Official World Golf Ranking ended Nov. 1, England’s Lee Westwood taking over.
That didn’t deter fans who followed Woods at the Victoria Golf Club in their thousands, even as he struggled with his putting in the first three rounds before rallying with a 6-under-par 65 to secure a fourth-place finish, three shots off the lead.
For David and Sandra Whitburn, retirees from Sydney who said they regularly attend PGA Tour of Australasia events in their home city, Woods was the main reason they’d made the trip for their first tournament in Melbourne.
“He’s still the big attraction,” David Whitburn said as the couple made their way to grandstand seats at the 18th hole. “We didn’t come in 2009 and didn’t want to miss out again.”
Last year, local golfer Kieran Pratt watched Woods’s win at Kingston Heath. Two days ago, the 22-year-old found himself playing alongside the American in only his third round as a professional after matching him with scores of 69 and 72 to make the cut.
Just sharing the practice range with Woods would have been thrill enough, Pratt said after outscoring him by one shot during their round together.
“I saw him walking on the range on day one and it’s just unreal seeing him,” Pratt said. “I’ve seen him so much on TV, and there he was. He’s got such an aura around him. To play with him was really cool.”
To be sure, Woods’s second straight appearance at the Masters didn’t generate the same buzz as last year, when his first tournament in Australia since 1998 prompted tickets to sell out six weeks in advance.
His arrival and pre-tournament press conference were broadcast live on national television and the opening round began with traffic jams around Kingston Heath, where more than 95,000 fans attended the tournament’s four days. This year, the helicopters that had tracked his movements were absent and about 62,000 turned up at the Victoria Golf Club.
“We all acknowledge that last year was unique,” said David Rollo, director of golf at IMG Australia, which owns and promotes the Masters. “Tiger hadn’t been here for 11 years. Getting him back as the defending champion was a real boost.”
Australian golfer Stuart Appleby thanked the galleries at the presentation ceremony after winning the tournament yesterday on 10-under-par, one and two shots, respectively, ahead of his compatriots Adam Bland and Daniel Gaunt. Appleby, a nine-time winner on the U.S. PGA Tour, said he realized that most of the spectators probably hadn’t come to watch him.
“The swollen crowds we’ve seen in the last few years is really great,” Appleby told reporters. “I’ve never played golf like that in this country. By no means do I expect 5,000, 10,000 to come and watch us play.”
The drop in crowds from 2009 is “more to do with Woods being back for a second year and probably again next year for the Presidents Cup,” said Roosenburg, whose TRP Sports company is running December’s Australian Open in Sydney.
Getting him back this year was still money well spent, according to Bob Tuohy, a former professional player who set up Adelaide-based golf management company Tuohy Associates in 1974.
Woods’s appearance fee was about $3 million, half of which was paid for by the local state government of Victoria, newspapers including Melbourne’s Herald Sun reported.
“He’s still worth every cent of investment,” Tuohy said in a telephone interview. “You take him out and the event just wouldn’t have the same appeal. Obviously the guy has had some tough times lately but he’s still a very marketable asset.”