June 18, 2007

Present Tense

A veteran Golf World columnist analyzes the state of the game, savors its static nature and questions its aspirations.

Woods brought golf a mainstream presence, but his reach is greater than that of the sport.

Woods brought golf a mainstream presence, but his reach is greater than that of the sport.

No sport is more loyal to its roots than golf. Advances in equipment technology are viewed as a threat to the game's skill requirement, heedlessly compromising shot values on courses designed a century ago. Saddle shoes still sell, Arnold Palmer will always rule, and for all the cash thrown at today's tour pros, the prize they covet most is a 90-decibel green jacket awarded at a tournament where you can smoke in the clubhouse and buy a pimento-cheese sandwich for $1.50.

Golf's competitive law throughout most of the world is determined by a governing body called the Royal & Ancient. Despite short-sleeve mock necks and hand-held distance devices that provide an exact yardage to the pin, smallball definitely is old school. Its anachronistic sensibilities never gelled with the progressive culture at ESPN, which ended its relationship with the PGA Tour last year, although viewer ratings among all tour carriers have been in decline for several years.

Recreationally, golf has experienced little or no statistical growth since a popularity spike in the early 1990s. Tiger Woods remains the tour's only black player, which is one more than you'll find on the LPGA Tour. For all the recent efforts made to expand, diversify, modernize and revolutionize the game, the leopard still has its spots. Golf is hard. Golf is expensive. A full round requires four (or more) hours and a hundred acres of grass. A Sunday afternoon telecast surely leaves many people thinking golf is exceedingly slow, patently boring and full of middle-aged white guys with a lot more money than personality.

None of this stagnancy keeps me awake at night, nor should it bother you in the slightest. Long live golf in the shadows of America's sporting mainstream, as a niche with understated panache and antiquated character. An acquired taste with addictive traits, it counts several million avid participants and hardcore fans, some of whom have made it a lifestyle, but this business of growing the game? It's a fishy proposition, a sucker pin fronted by a hazard.

"We talk in honorable tones, then scream bloody murder when a starter sends us out behind four choppers."

Golf wasn't meant for the masses. Corporate-friendly by nature, it's damn near childproof at most levels, plagued by access issues, pace-of-play predicaments and cost. The high-end, daily-fee boom may be over, but I don't see a bunch of low-budget, six-hole municipal facilities sprouting up in big cities, either. Any well-intentioned attempts to broaden the game's so-called boundaries--The First Tee program is a perfect example--should be motivated by moral obligation, not commercial success. If you're an entrepreneur, you'd call that a waste of land and money.

You can swear it ain't so, but our game has exclusionary reflexes. We talk in honorable tones, then scream bloody murder when a starter sends us out behind four choppers, all armed with double-bogey handicaps and graphite-shafted ball retrievers. When does it become OK to admit we don't need any more beginners? We try to educate kids willing to work as caddies, but golf's rules are three steps beyond complex, the particulars of its etiquette immense. The point of diminished returns can arrive very quickly.

Of course, one man's game is another man's business. Without growth, you're standing still, and if you're standing still in a public sector, some guy in a striped tie won't be getting his obese year-end bonus. You can't rightfully begrudge a man for driving profit margins--the dude wants to retire early so he can, ahem, go play golf--but the organizations that want most to grow golf have an obvious financial stake in their message. The PGA of America on a recreational level, the PGA Tour in terms of spectators and TV viewers--both operations regularly compromise the game's essence and integrity to generate additional revenue for themselves.

In November 2000, tour commissioner Tim Finchem's opening remarks at the inaugural Golf 20/20 summit included this statement: "We should consider as our first goal to become [America's] No. 1 sport in fan base, surpassing the NFL by the year 2020 and reaching 177 million fans." What sounded far-fetched 6½ years ago sounds preposterous now--did a man of Finchem's intellect and composure really issue such a challenge? More than the crummy research data, however, is the underlying, covertly poisonous suggestion that golf is "failing" if it isn't getting bigger.

In the spring of 2007, pro golf's problems and nagging concerns are defined largely in the backfire of the growth-is-great myth. For instance, was the tour's long-term alliance with Golf Channel, whose viewership numbers are outrageously low, an admission of defeat? It makes no difference what some half-informed media analyst tells you--losing ESPN was a massive blow to a league looking to expand its audience beyond its given parameters. Think of it this way: Would any commissioner with designs on becoming more popular than the NFL do what Finchem did?

If catching pro football wasn't realistic, neither was the projection of an 85-percent increase in golf's fan base over 20 years. By the end of 2000, Woods was three-quarters of his way to the Tiger Slam, having produced maybe the greatest competitive summer in golf history. His fame had reached the stratosphere it remains in today, and in confusing Tiger's audience reach with that of golf's in general, some hyperventilating marketer made a huge mistake.

Woods clearly is much bigger than the game when it comes to moving the commercial needle. One can see how his popularity actually hurts the tour when he doesn't play--the tournament can't be that important if Tiger's not in the field, right? It isn't hard to understand why some passionate purists would struggle with this premise. Bottom line? Woods doesn't play any less often than Jack Nicklaus did 30 years ago.

Because golf isn't a team sport, it has no ­geographic fan constituencies, no colloquial rooting interests to speak of. Because Woods is so dominant, the game has no real rivalry, no competitive confrontation to ignite a conversational spark. At many events, Phil Mickelson has the most vociferous galleries, Woods the biggest. The nongolfers and first-timers are there to see Tiger; they'd never bother coming otherwise. Joe Sixpack and the rest of the 15-handicaps, meanwhile, gather around Phil. It's an interesting dynamic, but let's not kid ourselves. Woods' greatness brought golf a fleeting burst of mainstream presence for a couple of years, but the novelty has long since worn off, and now we've returned to the second row of the sports hierarchy.

We saw the same thing happen in the early '90s with the Senior PGA Tour. A sexy mix of clock-punching club pros (Tom Wargo, Larry Laoretti) and silver superstars (Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino) created a ton of buzz, prompting former commissioner Deane Beman to make a 40-week schedule out of the concept. By the time Woods began reconfiguring the game's competitive landscape at the far end of the decade, Geritol Ball was just a cute little fad whose meter had expired.

As ESPN has learned through its tacky fascination with Michelle Wie, golf rarely plays to form, maybe because it doesn't have one. The NFL empire was built on the concept of parity, but on any given week, there are a hundred or so players capable of winning a tour event. This randomness is caused by an infinite number of variables, making the pro game a tough sell for bookies, an over-the-top risk for wagerers, a leap of faith for sponsors and a wild card for the networks. To the casual sports fan, golf requires too much work and not enough payoff.

With 57 tour victories in 222 career starts, Woods has led us to believe he's far more invincible than a .257 winning percentage might suggest. We're still waiting for someone to outplay him down the stretch on a crucial Sunday afternoon and swipe a tournament that really matters, but this notion that nobody has gained on Sir Eldrick's reign is a crock. Mickelson won three majors in a two-year span and added a Players title last month. Vijay Singh briefly unseated Woods as the world's No. 1 player in 2004 and has proven to be his most consistent adversary since the tyranny of 2000.

Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott are Tiger's equal from tee to green but lack his mental toughness and steadiness with the putter. The historians can huff and puff all they want about how Woods has claimed 12 majors without much of a fight, but the modern era is far deeper than its ancestors, and it's certainly worth noting that Palmer won just two majors after Nicklaus beat him in the 1962 U.S. Open, or that Lee Trevino didn't win anything until he was 28, or that Tom Watson spent his first four years fumbling leads before Jack Newton was kind enough to donate the 1975 British Open.

Of course, it's human nature to glorify the past. Golfers do it better than anyone.