September 1, 2008

What Goes Around...

Economy, Tiger's absence expose fragility of good times

As good as the British Open, PGA Champion-ship and yes, the FedEx Cup Playoffs have been, the absence of Tiger Woods has left a void. But in terms of the game's long-term health, Woods' enforced sabbatical couldn't have come at a better time.

Golf without Woods underscores how decadent the PGA Tour has become—and by extension, how fragile. In a tanking economy in which leisure time is evaporating, what was thought to be a momentary bobble is looking more like a bursting bubble. With corporate America and TV networks worriedly wondering if they overvalued the product, that dreaded euphemism "market adjustment" is in the air.

If it comes, it would please the irascibly romantic Dan Jenkins, who dryly notes that what ails the game is "nothing a good Depression wouldn't cure." But downturn or not, it's still the right moment for the tour to take stock.

First, some truths. Nowhere is it written that pro golf can or should be as popular as football, baseball and basketball. Despite the Tigermania-fueled aspirations of the late 1990s, pro golf remains niche entertainment. It's not a great live spectator sport—slow, with mostly unsatisfying viewing areas. It's not a great television sport—even with tape-delayed editing, it lacks action. Golf remains a great participation sport (perhaps the best ever invented), and by and large those who like to watch are those who like to play. True superstars such as Woods can carry the game beyond the traditional demographic, but we are seeing what happens when Atlas shrugs. Or limps.

All the taking without sufficiently giving back didn't seem to matter for a long time, but now it does.'

Golf's best, while squeaky clean when collectively compared to other pro athletes, are also as a group less colorful. This is one of golf's dilemmas. As an insular game that requires huge focus and self-involvement to play well, many of its most consumed players tend to project impenetrable public personas, following the example of Ben Hogan, Nick Faldo and yes, Woods.

Add it up, and golf under normal circumstances is a tough sell. The Senior/Champions Tour knew this going in and wisely made a point of urging its players to connect with fans, sponsors and media nearly every week. It has always been thus in women's golf. Whatever you think of the LPGA's controversial new rule to require foreign players to pass an English proficiency test, there is no doubt it was born of cold economics.

By contrast, the PGA Tour has gotten so black-out drunk with money it has largely forgotten the achievements of Arnold Palmer. Palmer's warmth and accessibility single-handedly thawed the Ice Age of Hogan and set golf on a treasure trail. Jack Nicklaus did his best to follow the example to further enrich the rewards, and soon the financial urgency was gone. During the last 25 years, it has been my observation that the world's best players generally have grown less attuned to the fans, sponsors and media.

All the taking without sufficiently giving back didn't seem to matter for a long time, but now it does. As CEOs reassess where to spend their money, purses actually could be headed down for the first time in decades (following TV ratings). The tour's veterans may sense it's time to go back to the Way of Palmer, but the young guys know only a one-way street.

Camilo Villegas is a good example. Much has come the 26-year-old's way because of his looks, his body, his clothes and his game. But the native of Colombia has never been expansive with the media, so it was a welcome change when after his third-round 63 at Boston, he thoughtfully reflected on subjects ranging from his struggle as an A-student at Florida to speak English, to his fitness regime. But then, casually but with a hint of impatience, he said, "If you guys let me go, I'll go get another workout in." It's a sentence the PGA Tour doesn't need. It does need Phil Mickelson signing autographs, Padraig Harrington opening the book on his recipe for winning majors, Geoff Ogilvy offering astute analysis, Paul Goydos being droll and Rocco Mediate being Rocco.

Of course, so many things in golf (including this column), begin and end with Woods. A fiercely private man, he often has stated the part of his golf life he will miss least will be his required interaction with the media. It has always been enough that he simply brings his game, but perhaps not anymore. By his example, Woods has done much to set the considerable distance that now exists between the pros and the people, one that players who don't have a hundredth of his public burden have exploited.

Much is asked of Woods, a lot of it unfair. But it would be good if during his break he resolved in the second half of his career to be more like Palmer.