Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 4, 2016

A New Narrative For Golf

In the wake of Jimmy Walker’s victory at the PGA Championship last weekend, there has been a spate of foreboding commentary about the significance of having four first-time winners at this year’s major golf tournaments. The headline on a New York Times article by Bill Pennington was “Four Fresh Major Champions, But Still No Golf Savior.” In fairness to Pennington, who is a fine writer and close follower of golf, newspaper reporters aren’t usually responsible for the headlines atop their articles. Still he concludes his piece with the assertion that “golf still awaits Woods’s successor(s).”

The Times article was by no means the only lament about the lack of a dominant superstar transcending the game and attracting millions of new fans to the sport, as Tiger Woods did virtually from the moment he turned professional in 1996. Throw in the well documented decline in the number of people playing recreational golf and this week’s announcement by Nike that it is exiting the golf equipment business, three months after Adidas put its TaylorMade and Adams equipment brands up for sale, and a three-part series entitled “Golf Is Dying” surely must be next up on ESPN.

That would be news to the tens of thousands who were at Baltusrol Golf Club last week, at a PGA Championship that sold out all four days of competition. Those fans withstood a Friday morning weather delay and a washed out Saturday afternoon before returning to watch Walker outlast Jason Day and the rest of the field by playing bogey-free golf over the final twenty-eight holes on a marathon Sunday. The notion that golf needs a savior was certainly not top of mind to those whose roars echoed across Baltusrol’s Lower Course throughout the tournament.

Compiling all-time best lists in any sport is an obviously subjective endeavor. But it is worth noting that in surveying six different online lists of the best golfers ever, three names appeared in the top five of each one – Woods, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan. While no two fans or pundits would be likely to compile identical lists of the top ten golfers in the history of the game, there does seem to be a consensus that these three stand out as transcendent players. The peak of Hogan’s career was in the 1940s and early 1950s. Nicklaus dominated from the mid-60s through the following decade. While Woods’s career is presumably not yet over, his peak was a ten-year period from the late 1990’s through much of the last decade. That timeline should remind us that golfers who dominate the game in the manner of these three come along once in a generation at most. It’s absurd to expect the “next Woods” to appear on the first tee just as the career arc of the original edition moves well into its back nine.

While it is rare for the Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA to all be claimed by a first-time major winner in the same year, it’s really no more unusual than for none of them to have a maiden winner. This year marked the third time in the past two decades that golf’s four big events all went to a player winning his first major. In the same period the number of years when none of these tournaments went to such a golfer is two, virtually the same. Overall the past twenty years have seen forty-three first time major champions, or on average just over two per year. Even between 1997 and 2008, when Woods’s dominance was presumably foreclosing many opportunities for anyone else to win, there were twenty-two first time major winners in twelve years, or just under two per season. Since in reality there aren’t any fractional winners, it’s fair to say that for the past two decades, in what will always be known as the Tiger Woods era of golf, a typical year included half the majors being won by someone who had not done so before. All those numbers suggest that the focus on four first-time winners in 2016 is much ado about very little.

As for the decline in the number of people playing golf, that’s surprising only if one believes in perpetual growth. As a transcendent figure Woods caused many people to take up the game, but as with any group of people trying something new, over time many of them decided it wasn’t for them, no doubt for a variety of reasons. The most recent statistics show the number of people playing recreational golf is almost identical to what it was before Woods turned pro. That suggests that the Tiger bubble may have burst, but hardly indicates a sport in terminal decline.

The news about the equipment manufacturers is even less surprising. Nike was never able to capture a significant share of the golf equipment market. In 2003 Phil Mickelson said, meaning it as a compliment to Woods, that he had “inferior equipment. Tiger is the only player who is good enough to overcome the equipment he is stuck with.” Over time recreational golfers, most of whom will think long and hard before shelling out $400 or more for a new driver, came to agree with Lefty. TaylorMade retains a healthy market share, which is why Adidas is looking to sell the brand rather than shuttering it. But sales have slumped due almost entirely to self-inflicted wounds. Several years ago some supposed genius in product development decided to greatly shorten the life of each generation of TaylorMade clubs. A couple of seasons of rapid product turnover soured many buyers on the brand. It seems that golfers don’t like the idea of spending that $400 on what is supposed to be the best technology, only to find their club in the discount bin with a drastic markdown only six months later.

On the PGA Tour purses are up 37% over the past decade, most of which has passed since Woods won his most recent major in June 2008. Since 2010 the LPGA has come back from the dead, with prize money increasing by more than 50% and the number of events rising to thirty-three from a low of twenty-four. At the professional level, by the measures that understandably matter most to those who make a living playing this game, golf is in fine shape.

The real problem for many pundits is that the current state of the game doesn’t match their chosen narrative. It’s as if the long period of Woods’s dominance left them unable to imagine any other structure to the sport. So ignoring history they have repeatedly tried to anoint the “next Tiger;” and failing that more recently have been quick to declare a new Big Three or Big Four, with the identities of the members shifting from week to week.

In reality professional golf has never had such a deep talent pool. The thousands at Baltusrol certainly opted to follow the known stars over other players, including for much of Sunday the eventual winner. But they didn’t appear at all upset about having several such stars to choose from; nor were there any complaints when the steely Walker holed his final three-footer. While parity may be in conflict with the seemingly preferred narrative of one dominant player, it’s worth remembering that the NFL rose to its current heights in the sports firmament on just that promise. “These guys are good” has gotten a lot of mileage as a marketing slogan for the PGA Tour. But maybe it’s time to try out a new one. How about “on any given Sunday?”

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