As Jim Nantz tells us so often, the Masters Tournament truly is a tradition unlike any other. For golf fans, there is no better remedy after a long, golf-less winter than the green fairways and greener jackets of the Augusta National Golf Club. We look forward to those trademark azaleas all year long, and for a millisecond, some even consider skipping Spring Weekend to go home and watch it on the big screen. With its iconic setting and rich history, the Masters is the pinnacle of golf. But this year, even high stakes and majestic beauty couldn’t save it from the loss of Tiger Woods.
Like so many of the greatest athletes, Woods makes his presence felt. Any golf tournament takes on a whole new level of intensity when Woods is on the prowl in his traditional Sunday red. But, as we learned the hard way last weekend, Woods’ absence is felt just as strongly as his presence — this year, average ratings for weekend Masters coverage fell to its lowest point since 1993, back when Woods was still tearing up the Junior Amateur circuit.
The hardcore fans don’t need him. We’ll watch anything golf-related as we rehearse our swings in the background. But flip to the Golf Channel and the commercial content will tell you that hardcore golf fans are pretty much limited to rich, white men with prostate problems about to tap into their retirement accounts (well, besides me).
But the casual fans who watch just the four majors and know only the top names? They need Tiger in the field. They need the narrative of Woods’ desperate bid to end his major drought on golf’s biggest stage. They need the possibility of witnessing history, the sort of greatness that only Woods can provide on a golf course. Without him, the casual fans turn their attention elsewhere. Tiger’s ruthless quest for 19 is a storyline that can captivate the average sports fan. “Adam Scott looks to defend title” definitely can’t compete with “LeBron eyes a three-peat” or “Jeter begins farewell tour.”
Golf is forever rooted in tradition. But really, this is just a nice way of saying the game is stuck in its ways, fighting to stay relevant in an evolving sports landscape. More so than other professional leagues, the top-heavy PGA Tour is defined by its star power. And as far as superstars go, Tiger Woods is to golf as Bill Nye is to science. Woods doesn’t have to win. He just has to be there, and the headlines will write themselves.
Some will blame the poor ratings on a lack of final-round drama. True, there were none of the late heroics or heartbreaks that Augusta so often produces. Eventual champion Bubba Watson won by a comfortable three-stroke margin, but he only broke away on Sunday’s back nine. Entering the final round, the tournament boasted a compelling storyline: Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth locked in a duel. Masters veteran looking for a second green jacket versus Masters rookie looking to burst onto the scene. Watson’s personality is as bold as his game and his pink driver. Not even Woods had won a Masters at the age of Spieth, who will celebrate his 21st birthday in July. Watson is a worthy champion and Spieth a formidable runner-up. Together, they suggest a bright future for golf. But even someone as likeable as Bubba or as exciting as Spieth can’t put golf on the map like Tiger can. Golf’s unfortunate reality is that there will never be another Tiger Woods.
It’s not just that he’s won four times at Augusta. It’s the intensity that he brings, even in defeat. Woods the competitor is always locked in on any golf course. But at Augusta, in pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ revered major championship record? You better not blink.
The players know it, too. Defending champion Scott: “It’s a huge loss.” Phil Mickelson: “It’s awkward to not have him here. … He’s brought increased ratings, increased sponsors, increased interest.” Rory McIlroy: “Having Tiger in a tournament definitely creates more buzz, more of an atmosphere.” Even Woods’ greatest competitors miss his participation.
The PGA Tour has plenty going for it without Tiger. But the only way to prove it is to showcase the game to the world, and Woods almost singlehandedly drives that viewership. He’s got his share of both fans and detractors, but even the haters can’t deny that Woods’ presence elevates the intensity of a golf tournament. Whether he’s pulling off miraculous shots, taking illegal drops or hitting balls into the water, Woods is always a compelling watch. The notion that Augusta’s setting, heritage and drama would make us forget about Woods’ absence was always a bit too hopeful. The ratings speak for themselves.
Masters weekend is a spring ritual that the golf world craves. We’re willing to ignore the rampant racism and patriarchy that blemish Augusta’s image because we can’t resist the tournament itself. So, of course, I still watched. I still checked the leaderboard every 20 minutes while I was jostled by a crowd of Lauryn Hill fans. I still blew off my paper to watch the Sunday drama unfold. But without Tiger inciting roars on the back nine, something just felt different.
Mike Firn ’16 wants to send Tiger a “get well soon” card. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.