tiger woods bubble

With a Sad Whimper, the Golf Season Begins

Clicking around this morning, we stumbled across the talented writers of the SI Golf Group discussing the Farmers Insurance Open, which was a golf tournament that was played this weekend, we’re told. We found it thoroughly depressing. These are smart humans, writing smart things, about a sport that is dying. It’s like they know it, too. It’s like they’re going through the motions.

We’re not golf people ourselves; we tend to side with George Carlin on this.

But we understand that opinion is in the minority, and that our view on, as Carlin puts it, “Dorko in the Plaid Knickers,” is uninformed, biased, and almost assuredly wrong. But you cannot deny that golf is dying, and that it was dying long before Tiger Woods began diddling 21 percent of all reality-show contestants.

The Wall Street Journal had a terrific piece last week looking at just how much of golf’s success over the last decade was due entirely to a Tiger Woods bubble, a bubble that popped in the most dramatic way imaginable. Last weekend’s Farmers Insurance Open, the unofficial traditional start to the golf season, had no sponsor until just a week before the tourney started. Farmers Insurance leaped in at the last moment for a cheap $3.5 million sponsorship. They’re lucky it wasn’t called the Cash4Gold.com Open, though that might have been more truthful. There are still three tourneys this year that have no sponsors, and thirteen more in 2011. Sponsors are where the money comes from, and they’re bailing, either because of golf’s problems or, more often, their own. It suddenly feels a lot different to hit the golf course than it used to. It feels more decadent now.

Here’s the most damning paragraph in the WSJ piece:

The Tour’s overall audiences actually declined [during the Tiger Woods heyday]. According to Nielsen Co., final-round play on the broadcast networks in 2009 averaged under 3.5 million viewers, down from more than four million in 1999 and lower than in the year Mr. Woods turned pro. Just as worrisome to the sport, participation in golf on the real links has been falling as well. About 10.2% of Americans age 6 and above played at least one round in 2008, compared with 12.1% in 1990, according to the National Golf Foundation.

And this was supposed to be during golf’s boom time. Tiger Woods will eventually come back, and it will be the biggest sports story of the month, whether it’s at the Masters in April, or before, or (unlikely, but even more horrifying for the PGA) even later. That will only be a temporary, media-driven blip; this is a sport in decline. Golf’s growth required two specific aberrations: Irrational and corrupt corporate expenditures in a boom economy, and a global superstar with a flawless reputation rising above all others in sport. Both of these aberrations have been corrected, and obliterated. Golf is in serious trouble, with or without Tiger Woods. Somewhere, George Carlin is smiling, as Dorko in the Plaid Knickers weeps, or at least starts playing tennis again.

With a Sad Whimper, the Golf Season Begins