Future and past.

Photographer: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

The Masters Needs More Than Tiger Woods

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Tiger Woods is returning to tournament golf after a two-month hiatus. The four-time Masters champion will tee it up at Augusta National on Thursday -- great news for the sport, as long as he plays well.

Woods’s return isn’t that much of a surprise. When he announced he was taking a break back in February, he said it was to heal from an injury and work on his game after some mediocre showings. “When I think I’m ready, I’ll be back,” he said, but it wasn’t hard to read the subtext: “I’ll be back for a tournament that matters.”

And can you blame him? Woods can’t even work on his chip shot or take a practice round without making headlines. The media circus follows him wherever he goes, treating every hole he plays in every tournament named after a car company like it’s the 18th of a major championship. That kind of pressure isn’t exactly an antidote to the yips, and since we all know that his legacy is really all about chasing that other 18, it makes sense that he would avoid the fray until the Masters.

Inevitably, any conversation about Woods turns to his impact on the golf industry and the game’s future after he decides to leave it for good. When he missed last year’s Masters, I examined his impact on major tournaments through the years and unsurprisingly found spikes in viewership and ticket prices when Woods was competing. Sure enough, according to Sports Media Watch, the 2014 Masters that handed Bubba Watson the green jacket drew the lowest average ratings since 1957. (It should be noted that Phil Mickelson was also absent from weekend play after missing the cut.)

Woods’s presence will undoubtedly boost Masters viewership over last year, and will pump some life into the sport beyond Augusta. The PGA Tour has been trounced on television by March Madness and even Nascar, which beat NBC’s broadcast of the Texas Open in ratings and viewers despite the STP 500 airing on cable rather than network.

But a deeper look at golf’s viewership in recent years suggests that it might not be enough for Woods to simply show up. To breathe life into the sport’s long-term popularity, he also has to play well.

Take Torrey Pines, for example. With Woods having withdrawn, the final round of this year’s Farmers Insurance Open in February garnered a 2.2 overnight rating -- a far drop from 8.0 in 2000, when he finished tied for second and the year after he won. But it was actually higher than 2011 and last year, when Woods did play but failed to finish in the top 40. With the exception of 2005, ratings spike severely in years that he’s finished first. Same with the Bridgestone Invitational. In the past 15 years, the final round of the Players Championship similarly earned its highest ratings in 2001 and 2013, the two years Woods won.

Not even the majors are immune to the Tiger effect.  In addition to the Masters hitting  57-year-low, final round ratings for the 2014 U.S. Open were also at an all-time bottom, while those for last year’s British Open tied the tournament’s second-lowest rating.

It’s understandable, then, that many worry about the sport’s ability to stay relevant after Woods’s eventual retirement. As I wrote last year, the specter of golf after Tiger looms much larger than that of basketball after Kobe Bryant or baseball after Derek Jeter. Those sports have pretty much already crowned their new guard.

Golf thinks and hopes it’s found its successor to Woods: Rory McIlroy, who has won three of the last four majors. Last August’s PGA Championship, which saw McIlroy win by one shot over Mickelson, had its highest ratings in five years. And perhaps there’s no greater signal of the hope for McIlroy taking on the mantle than Nike’s new commercial, in which the 26-year-old pays tribute to Woods’s career and inspiration.

It’s a heartwarming tribute, but much like Gatorade’s Derek Jeter retirement ad, it feels bittersweet, like a 30-second declaration that the player we once knew is a thing of the past. In 2013, McIlroy joined Woods on Nike’s payroll in a 10-year deal that’s rumored to be worth around $200 million. Two years later, the company is signaling with little subtlety that the generational transition in golf is complete.

As Awful Announcing’s Ed Sherman notes, that might not be the death knell some fear. The NBA suffered a predictable ratings decline after Michael Jordan’s retirement, and while viewership has never reached the heights it did under His Airness, the business of basketball has never been better. Parity has led the way for a bevy of new superstars to emerge, not just one face of the sport. Along those lines, perhaps the best thing for golf would be to make room for the McIlroys and Watsons and Spieths to assume the position.

As for present affairs, many golf experts also seem to have written Woods off, in this upcoming Masters and beyond. It makes sense to temper expectations, given what we’ve seen from him -- and his short game -- in the past year. But USA Today’s Chris Chase urges us to keep our eye on the ball: “These same folks don’t seem to remember that Tiger won four tournaments in 2012 and five tournaments in 2013,” he writes. “To put that into perspective, only 11 active players have that many wins in their careers. He’s been great as recently as 16 months ago.”

There will come a day, perhaps soon, when Tiger Woods decides he’s done with golf. Until that happens, he should face lower expectations without being completely written off. He still has the power to single-handedly revitalize golf with one stellar major weekend.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net