Does Tiger Really Move Golf's Needle?

Tiger Woods at Bay Hill
Getty Images
Tiger wows the crowd at Bay Hill
Steve Eubanks

Series: Eubanks

Published: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 | 10:35 a.m.

He’s back. Or at least he’s back enough that the golf world is abuzz with anticipation.

If you listen to the pundits, this might be the time; the return might be imminent and permanent; a new Green Jacket should be sized to fit his slightly rounder frame; and when it happens, when Tiger Woods is officially back at the top of the charts, all the things in our game that have been off-kilter will return to normal. But is any of that true?

In the two years since “the incident,” no golfer has generated more passion or more heated discussions than Tiger. Hank Haney’s book was the No.1 nonfiction bestseller on Amazon the day it came out, and Tiger is the lead in almost every news story about the Masters.

He had barely gotten his ball out of the hole on the final green at Bay Hill when the first person said, “Having Tiger Woods winning or in contention is good for the game.” In the days since his comeback win, that well-worn generality has been repeated scores of times in my presence and, no doubt, thousands if not millions of times around the country.

But what does it mean? Sure, having Tiger in contention is good for television. NBC ratings for Arnie’s event were up a whopping 120 percent over last year. And, sure, he raises attendance at events as well as awareness and conversation about the game (an elderly lady who wouldn’t know a Rocketballz driver from a Saturn 5 rocket asked me about Tiger at church). But will one more person play golf this week because Tiger won on Sunday? Will one more sleeve of golf balls be sold? One more driver? Will one more minority athlete be inspired to take up the game because Tiger is winning again? And, if so, how long will that new player remain a golfer?

Empirically, the answer is, yes, sure, Tiger has a big impact. Cindy Davis, the president of Nike Golf, can’t speak highly enough of his contribution:

“He has played a key part in building Nike Golf for over a decade,” Davis said. “Being the iconic athlete that he is, consumers pay attention to what he wears and the equipment he plays. If you look at Nike's heritage, it's about athletes. They give insights and feedback on our product innovations. Tiger has an incredible sense of product.”

But rounds of golf worldwide are down, as are retail sales and overall yields at courses throughout the country. There has been a slight uptick in participation in the first quarter of 2012, but most professionals attribute that to the mild winter, not any particular tour player, and certainly not Tiger Woods.

Former PGA of America president M.G. Orender, who runs Hampton Golf, a Florida-based golf management company, told me several months ago that we still have well over 1,000 courses in America that need to close before the supply and demand reach equilibrium. “I see it every day,” he said. “There are courses in every state that are going to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars until the end of days. They need to be turned into parks or nature areas or other useful amenities for their communities, because they aren’t going to make it as golf courses.”

Tiger has the ability to draw eyeballs and drive the conversation about golf, but he can’t save the game from the harsh realities of economics.

He can, however, generate enthusiasm in a certain segment of the population.

“I will almost guarantee you that we will sell more Nike shirts and balls this week than we did last week,” said Joe Debock, PGA head golf professional at Torrey Pines. “Having been a part of the tour event out here for many years, as well as the 2008 U.S. Open, it’s hard to describe the level of energy and enthusiasm (Tiger) brings. When he is in the field or in contention, our numbers go up dramatically, across the board.”

Jenny Judd, one of the PGA head golf professionals at Canongate Golf, suggested that Tiger does have an impact, not in growing the game, but in shifting dollars from one group to another. “We will see an increase in minority play when Tiger is winning,” she said. “It’s a small increase, but it’s there. Unfortunately, it doesn’t affect the overall numbers of our operations by any measurable amount. We might sell a few more Nike balls because of it, but we won’t sell as many Titleist or Callaway balls. In most cases, it’s a wash.”

One week and one win do not portend much of anything. Tiger might go back to his fairway missing ways next week, or he might blow away the field in Augusta as he did in 1997. Either way, he will be the talk of the sport for at least the next couple of weeks, perhaps throughout the summer.

That can’t be a bad thing. The only question is: how much good can Tiger, or any star, really bring to the game and the business of golf? The short answer is: not much. Not anymore. Growing the game is up to all of us who devote our lives to golf and love it every day.



Yeah, he's the needle alright, now that he's won a tournament again, we'll have more idiots on the weekend yelling "You Da Man" and "Get In The Hole" than ever. Yay ! And JG, Tiger is NOT the reason Golfers are making a lot of money, purses were steadily rising before "Da Man's" arrival on the PGA Tour and would have continued to do so. He did raise Club throwing and profanity to unprecedented levels though...


I agree that Tiger’ win is the lead in almost every news story. Every story is about how Tiger Woods is officially backed at the top for his fans. I think the PGA golf was struggling without Tiger game. I start to see golf when Tiger start on the PGA. Now to see him winning or in contention is good for the PGA and fan. He is great, and many players going to the Master scare of Tiger. I know that more people around the world going to see the Master because Tiger. He will break some records this year.


The writer should be happy that Tiger Woods 'the celebrity' can attract a lot of excitement and draw a novice into viewing and playing the sport. Then as we become educated about the game we can appreciate Tiger Woods 'the golfer' as well as all of the others who play the game with dedication and skill. No one can ever really know, but to my mind Woods just wants to continue to practice, play, and be the best he can.


I also agree with Bond. This is a poor outlook on a person who is just trying to play golf. thing is, we all like to watch Tiger play golf. One of the main reasons he is so big, is he can handle the pressure and the feeling of all eyes on me. If he failed every time we watched...well, no one would be watching.

I think golf courses are struggling strictly because of green fees. Its too expensive to draw any young people at all. It needs to be reasonable to play. Otherwise people end up surfing, playing tennis, etc....its free! Tiger is in no way responsible for golf courses closing around the country, shame on you for trying to connect those dots.


He has a positive impact on women golf fans. But I know a couple of women that are going to the Masters to watch him play, not because he is exciting and fun to watch. Because he is an amazing player AND exciting and fun to watch. I am a golf player and big fan. But guarantee women will pay big bucks to watch Tiger. Win or lose. Heck, Tiger has me undressing my men in red NIKE shirts every day of the week. :-)


It is crazy to think that Tiger isn't the key driver for the success of the PGA and golf in the US. How big were the purses at events before Tiger? How many people thought golf was a rich-white-guy sport?
The evidence in the article is weak, at best. Someone saying that the minorities that now play golf do not affect their operations by any measurable amount is a bit silly. Golf is now an even bigger worldwide sport because of Tiger. Perhaps high end country clubs may not see the huge minority growth, but I am sure that it does not reflect golf business in general.
Huge golf chain stores, golf psychologists, more money for each event, and the general spectacle that golf is now is mostly due to Tiger Woods. You can argue that golf is moving in the wrong direction, but you can't argue that it isn't moved by Tiger Woods and his significant impact on the game. A lot of folks like to think that young players in the PGA are going to keep golf growing, but the fact is that Tiger is the reason they all make a lot of money, and the majority of them seem to shrink under the pressure of carrying the sport.
By the way, did anyone ask any golf manufacturers if they would prefer to go back to the days before Tiger Woods? I am sure the earnings statements for all of them are much healthier now, even if they aren't Nike.


I agree with Jameson Bond. Just ask the NBA if they miss Michael Jordan and his impact on the game.!


This is a very pessimistic view of the effect Woods' comeback will have on golf. I believe it degrades the positive impact he has on the game, for the purpose of a weak conclusion that no player can bring much to the business of golf. In my mind, however misconstrued it may be, Tiger is no doubt the best golfer of his time and like the other best players of their time (Jack), they will always be the driving force of golf's success and contribute more to the game than what most other players can contribute due to their superior ability to be great. Woods is a great competitor with an amazing attitude that everyone including the professionals should idolize. Golf will survive regardless of which pro draws the largest crowds, it just won't be as exciting and strong without players of their time like Tiger and Jack.