Tiger Woods is a reality show at the British Open this week, where golf’s biggest draw is being covered by a dedicated video feed showing his every shot through the first two rounds. The tournament favorites, meanwhile, are fighting for attention.
Germany’s Martin Kaymer last month won the U.S. Open by eight shots with the second lowest total score in the event’s 119-year history and drew the smallest U.S. television audience since at least 1992. Woods sat the event out to complete his recovery from back surgery.
Although Woods hasn’t won one of golf’s four major titles in more than six years and missed the two already played this season, his return makes the 14-time major tournament winner the center of attention. Woods, 38, has only played four PGA Tour events this year, slipped to No. 7 in the Official World Golf Ranking, and is the fifth favorite among oddsmakers.
“Golf always had the Big Three,” said Brad Adgate, director of research at New York-based Horizon Media Inc., referring to Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, and Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan before them. “Now it’s just the Big One. Maybe there’s hope, but right now they’re not attracting the interest. Tiger cast such a long shadow on the sport early in his career because he lived up to the hype. Now, he has fallen back to earth.”
Woods opened the British Open with a 3-under-par 69 today that’s left him three strokes behind leader Rory McIlroy at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England. Playing his first round at a major championship in 11 months, Woods bogeyed the first two holes before recovering with five birdies in a six-hole stretch starting at the 11th hole.
“It felt good to get back out there and mix it up with the guys,” said Woods, who finished with six birdies and three bogeys. “Unfortunately I got off to a horrific start, but I battled back.”
It’s the third straight year Woods has shot below 70 in the first round at the British Open. The three-time champion tied for sixth place at last year’s tournament at Muirfield and tied for third at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in 2012.
“I’m right there in the mix,” said Woods, who last month missed the cut for weekend play in his first event following back surgery. “With the weather expecting to get worse over the next couple days, it was nice to get this round in and be in a spot where I can go ahead and play good solid rounds.”
As Woods’s game declined after his personal crisis that resulted in his divorce in 2010, no player has been able to seize the limelight or generate the endorsement support from corporate sponsors that he received throughout his career.
A group of young stars, including the 25-year-old McIlroy, from Northern Ireland, and Americans Jordan Spieth, 20, and Rickie Fowler, 25, have been unable to generate the same level of interest as Woods.
He entered the tournament listed as the fifth-favorite to win at 25-1, according to golf oddsmaker Jeff Sherman of the Las Vegas Hotel’s SuperBook. Australia’s Adam Scott, the No. 1 player in the Official World Golf Ranking, and England’s Justin Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open winner, were co-favorites at 12-1.
With backers including Nike Inc. (NKE:US) and Swiss watchmaker Rolex SA, Woods earned a total of $83 million in 2013, including $71 million off of the course, according to Golf Digest magazine. Mickelson, who has deals with Callaway Golf Co. (ELY:US), accounting firm KPMG LLP and Barclays Plc (BARC), was second with $52 million ($45 million off course).
In comparison, McIlroy, also sponsored by Nike, made $20 million and Spieth, who has agreements with Under Armour (UA:US) Inc. and AT&T Inc. (T:US), earned $9.2 million. McIlroy has won the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, both since Woods’s last major victory. He also got attention off the sports pages when he and Caroline Wozniacki, a formerly No. 1 ranked tennis player, had been engaged. Spieth finished tied for second at the Masters Tournament in April after leading in the final round, and became the first teenager to win a U.S. PGA Tour tournament last year since 1931.
Palmer, 84, played for about 60 years before retiring from regular competition. He earned about $40 million in 2013, according to a 2014 survey of retired athletes by Forbes magazine. Palmer’s last of 62 career PGA Tour victories came in 1973. Nicklaus, 74, made $30 million; Player, 78, earned $19 million; and Greg Norman, 59, took in $16 million, according to the list.
“As Tiger goes, so goes golf,” Adgate said. “When he’s playing well, viewers are going to flock. When he’s not playing well, only the real golf fans are going to tune in.”
This week’s tournament at Royal Liverpool comes eight years after Woods used precision long-iron shots to dissect the course’s sun-dried fairways en route to a 2-shot win, two months after the death of his father, Earl. After that win, Woods won three more major titles, the most recent at the 2008 U.S. Open.
After returning to the U.S. PGA Tour three weeks ago at the Quicken Loans National, an event Woods said he wouldn’t have played if it didn’t benefit his charitable foundation, Walt Disney Co. (DIS:US)’s ESPN network revealed plans to cover each of Woods’s swings during the first two rounds of the British Open on its ESPN3 on-line network and WatchESPN mobile app.
All other players, including defending champion Mickelson, will be followed only by the network’s main ESPN channel.
Based on Woods’s on-course statistics, the additional attention is unwarranted, golf analysts said. He has fallen to seventh in the world rankings, has broken 70 in just three of his last 12 rounds entering the tournament and either missed the 36-hole cut or withdrawn from three events this season.
“It will be very difficult to expect a lot of him,” two-time U.S. Open winner Curtis Strange said. “Before he had the back surgery, he didn’t play well. We haven’t seen Tiger really, really play well in a while now.”
Based on television viewership numbers, Adgate said, the attention is desperately needed.
When Kaymer captured his second major title last month in Pinehurst, North Carolina, it drew a 3.0 final-round rating on Comcast Corp. (CMCSA:US)’s NBC network -- a 44 percent drop from Rose’s win a year earlier. The total of 4.6 million viewers was the lowest in at least 22 years, Adgate said.
With his quest to regain winning form stalled by the back surgery, some golf analysts also have begun to question if a series of swing changes over recent years has been too drastic, undercutting his chances of matching Nicklaus’s record of 18 major titles.
“Tiger has made astronomical changes in a quest to get better, and as a result Tiger has actually gotten a little bit worse,” former U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger, now an ESPN analyst, said on a media conference call. “Tiger didn’t need to get better. He just didn’t need to get worse. He needed to stay the same, and he could still dominate. It’s kind of backfired on him. Jack never made those mistakes.”
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