Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches

PGA National (Champion Course)



Analysis

Golf has become a sport without needle-movers

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Katelyn Mulcahy

In the aftermath of Nick Dunlap's shocking win at The American Express, the first by an amateur on the PGA Tour since Phil Mickelson in 1991, we learned something pretty remarkable about the TV ratings:

On paper, this seems like a perfectly wrapped comparison. The surface conclusion is that in a season when early PGA Tour ratings have been down, a player most people had never heard of drove more viewership at the exact same tournament, at the exact same time of year, than a golfer who just reportedly collected at least $300 million to join LIV Golf. From there, it doesn't take a ton of brainpower to arrive at the premise laid out in the headline of this piece, which can be outlined in two easy steps:

1. Beyond Tiger Woods, the perpetual and eternal needle-mover, golf audiences broadly don't care about any specific player. (If your initial reaction here is, "but Rahm isn't like Rory or Spieth," just hang tight a moment.)

2. A good story, rather than any single personality, is what resonates with golf audiences. That story can range from something as complex as "an amateur is about to win a PGA Tour event" to something as simple as "we're playing at a major championship with all its attendant historical import."

From there, you can make a convincing leap to a third conclusion:

3. The LIV defections, like Rahm's, look increasingly absurd if you only tie the dollar sign ($300 million) to the player's actual market value (nowhere even close to $300 million), and only make sense as a ploy to crack golf's foundations as a means of getting in on the organizational level; i.e., you're paying guys like Rahm or Cam Smith to disappear from public view until the PGA Tour capitulates. BUT, despite an appearance of diluting the product, the individual players might matter so little that it's not actually doing any real damage beyond perception, since more people tuned in to watch some kid named Nick Dunlap on a given week than Jon Rahm, even before he left for a league that nobody is watching in the first place.

Now, let's pause and take a breath. Before we become full-fledged converts to the ideas laid out above, it's worth acknowledging a few counterpoints. First, Jon Rahm hadn't yet won the Masters when he played the Amex in 2023 and drew the accompanying TV ratings. He was a major winner, and one of the top players in the world, but certainly his profile increased after Augusta by some quantifiable amount. The question is, how much? How many more people were likely to tune in to watch him in contention at a regular PGA Tour stop after his Masters win than before it?

Unfortunately, since Rahm didn't win on the PGA Tour after Augusta, it's hard to gauge. The best I could do is look at ratings for the final round of the Mexico Open, when Tony Finau beat him by three shots. There, the final-round numbers were comparable to the Wells Fargo and Byron Nelson, but lower than the Memorial, the RBC Heritage, and the RBC Canadian Open. By comparison to 2022 Mexico Open final-round ratings, the overall number was slightly down, 1.36 vs. 1.42. Rahm won in 2022, so that provides a direct comparison between his pre- and post-Masters phases. In other words, not much needle moving to be seen.

Speaking of the Canadian Open, you may remember that Nick Taylor, a Canadian, won it with one of the more memorable shots of the entire 2023 season. As it turned out, that final round drew higher ratings than any Canadian Open since 2000, which was won by—you guessed it—Tiger Woods. (It was the only time he won that event.) The important note here, though, is that it did better than Rory McIlroy's win a year earlier. I say it's "important" because another clear line of argument against the conclusions drawn about Rahm above is that Rahm himself may not have moved the needle in 2023, but Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth definitely do. Well, not Rory necessarily, at least not in comparison to another low-profile player named Nick who happened to deliver a great story at the perfect time.

What the numbers show, with great consistency, is that golf's modest TV ratings are no longer greatly influenced by any individual player, with a few minor fluctuations that you can potentially attribute to outliers such as Spieth or McIlroy. But even those fluctuations are no more, and often less, than the bumps you see for Nick Dunlap or Nick Taylor, or for storylines like LIV vs. PGA Tour that play out at major championships.

So let's say the initial premise is true. Where does this leave golf as a sport? The good news is that at least last year, PGA Tour ratings were static to slightly improved, meaning that people like me who worry about a fatigue effect from the LIV drama don't have to go full Chicken Little just yet. The prospect of a new Tiger Woods emerging, who could capture America's interest the same way, was always far-fetched, and indeed it hasn't remotely come true. But golf succeeding by committee is still feasible, and the high tide that swept for the recreational game during the COVID-19 pandemic provides so much opportunity. The ultimate lesson is not that professional golf is doomed. Rather, in the current era, so much depends on the story rather than the player, and increasingly the story is not driven by the player; or at least not in the usual, Tiger-centric way.

What will matter, sooner rather than later, is making sure the best players compete in the same places, because even if someone like Rahm or McIlroy is currently over-valued in terms of how much money they make against how much revenue they can realistically drive, golf will suffer from the perception that the schism dilutes fields everywhere except the majors. And if the PGA Tour can't right the ship, you could start falling into a dark place where the next tour TV contract, for instance, could look shocking in all the wrong ways.

Real, tough competition is all part of the story; the game itself needs to be compelling, because by comparison to the unrepeatable icon that is Tiger Woods, hard data shows that the players individually are not. They are all pieces of the broad tapestry, and the tapestry has enough power to move the needle by itself … but only if the people making the big decisions are smart enough to stop the bleeding, and to recognize the source from which golf's value in 2024 is truly derived.