Why Golf is Set for the Brightest of Futures
For the avid golf fan, it doesn’t get much better than what we were treated to last weekend. World number three Lee Westwood was in imperious form as he won the Nedbank Golf Challenge in Sun City, South Africa, setting a new course record along the way. World number two Rory McIlroy took another huge step in his personal and professional development by winning when he absolutely had to, making sure that the European Tour season finale and culmination of the Race to Dubai, the Dubai World Championship, is not rendered redundant. And yet, these events pale into insignificance when we consider the prospective implications of one of the most significant events in world golf since the turn of the decade: Tiger Woods’ return to the winners circle after more than two years in the proverbial abyss.
The trials and tribulations of Tiger Woods over the past couple of years have been so well documented that is unnecessary to revisit them, but that is no longer important. His victory on Sunday night at the Chevron World Challenge was exponentially more important to the game of golf than any other eventuality. He is by far the biggest draw in the modern game, and the fact of the matter is that the casual, part time golf viewer, along with the broader sports fan, will actively tune in to golf to see a resurgent Woods do things that the vast majority can only marvel at. But is this talk of a resurgent Woods premature? The main arguments put forth by those from this school of thought relate to tournament status and size of field. The Chevron World Challenge is an unofficial tournament with the same amount of players as holes on a course, they say. On the surface, these seem like valid arguments, but those that witnessed the nature of his birdie-birdie finish will surely find it hard to agree with such a stance; the manner of his victory rather than the size of the field is what needs to be focused on. He struggled with the putter; his body language was shaky; his swing lacked the fluidity of the Tiger of old, but when he absolutely had to, he stepped up: the mark of a great champion, regardless of discipline. The word clutch was synonymous with Woods in his prime, and on Sunday, he showed that he is not ready to relinquish that association. The premature resignation of Zach Johnson after missing his birdie putt on 18 said so much: there was simply no doubt in his mind that Tiger would make his putt, the sort of peer-mindset that helped to place Woods atop the invincible pedestal when he was at his most powerful. The hypothetical headline ‘Tiger wins by one shot after miraculous birdie-birdie finish’ would be associated with the Woods of old. The worrying thing for other professional golfers is that it happened last week.
In truth, it is a shame that viewing figures and popularity are so intrinsically linked with one man, but it is understandable. The committed golf fan will recognise the tremendous strength and excitement of the game at the moment, but the part time viewer requires Woods to be in the thick of the coverage before turning over to the golf. Take the Tour Championship, for example. In 2009, when Mickleson and Woods were battling it out down the stretch, 4.544 million viewers were tuned it. This figure was 1.967m this year and a lowly 1.438m in 2010. Viewing figures, on average, are almost double when Woods is in contention. Whilst it can be viewed as problematic that the status and standing of golf rests so heavily on the shoulders of one man, optimists will rightly see golf’s immediate future as potentially exhilarating: the timing of Tigers’ victory could not have been better. The thought of inevitable duels between Woods and the ‘new generation’ of athletic, gargantuan hitters makes the mouth water; the battle for world number one will be as closely contested as ever, with Donald, Westwood and McIlroy in great form going into 2012; golf is expanding globally and producing some great players from regions such as Asia, and new golf tours like the PGA Tour Latinoamerica are catalysts for the expansion of the game in previously neglected areas. The amalgamation of the aforementioned factors equates to a sport that is extremely marketable and an attractive proposition for sponsors, with new and exciting players, a youthful and vibrant look, the resurgence of the best ever golfer and immense and unabridged potential moving further into the 21st century.
Rory McIlroy will be at the heart of the promotion of golf for decades to come, and his victory on Sunday at the UBS Hong Kong Open is perhaps the clearest indication thus far that he has what it takes to be the best golfer in the world. His raw ability has never been in question, but coming from behind to win and keep the Race to Dubai alive was a very significant achievement. In a parallel with Tiger’s victory, he performed when he had to perform; when the title of best golfer in Europe was on the line. Granted, he may not win this week, but he has given himself a chance, and such is the quality of the young Ulsterman that it wouldn’t be a surprise if he recorded back to back victories and won the European Tour money list. Golf needs aggressive players with flair like McIlroy, and two things have happened to him this season that will hold him in excellent stead going forward: his change of management, and his performance in the first two majors of the year. To have had such a calamitous final round at the Masters and follow it with such an astounding victory at the US Open was nothing short of sensational. To have had such a humbling experience and to come back stronger shows resilience, strength of character, determination and perseverance: qualities held in abundance by top sportsmen throughout the world. After his maiden major victory, a swagger, arrogance and recognition of his celebrity status pervaded his actions, but that is something that seems to have been recognised and rectified by his new management agency, Horizon Sports. He is a superstar in the making, and one of very few players capable of competing with Tiger Woods at his peak. With Woods still in his thirties, and McIlroy only 22, the foundations for one of the most exciting battles in the history of golf are in place. Westwood and Donald are others that can justifiably claim to be in that list, but there are countless other stars of the future – Watson, Woodland, Watney, Fowler, Kaymer, Ishikawa, Johnson, Lewis, Schwartzel, to name but a few – that could challenge the recognised order. What do all these players have in common? They are characters; they hit it miles; they are young, they are popular and they are adventurous. That, to me, is the recipe for an electrifying future.
So many names could be added to that list if the potential of the orient is properly harnessed, and we are starting to see a number of quality players filtering through from the East. In this year’s Presidents Cup, there were four Asian players in the field, and a quarter of the international team hailed from South Korea. The decision to host the 2015 Presidents Cup in Korea is a just recognition of “the sport’s continuing growth and popularity in Asia.” Ryo Ishikawa is one of the most talented golfers in the world game. K.J. Choi and Y.E. Yang are household names and winners of some of the biggest tournaments in the sport. The latter, in a touching interview after the decision was announced, said; “I feel very proud that I picked up golf as a living…I have no doubt this will improve the golf culture and golf market in Korea.” Kim Tae-Kim, who was a rookie in this year’s Presidents Cup, has been earmarked by Sky Sports’ golf commentator Ewan Murray as a great prospect for the future. The fact that he was invited to play at the Nedbank Golf Challenge is an acknowledgement of his talent; an acknowledgement that Asia is becoming a prominent hotbed for the breeding of gifted golfers. On the European Tour’s recent Asian swing, a number of Filipino golfers excelled, including Juvic Pagunsan, who missed out in a play-off at the Barclays Singapore Open, and just yesterday, at the PGA Tour Qualifying School, Sang-moon Bae and Seung-yul Noh earned their playing privileges for the 2012. Noh (below) is another with almost limitless potential, who is in possession of one of the most sumptuous swings in the game of golf.
The set up for 2012 couldn’t be better, with the combination of new and old, but the most exciting thing is the prospective knock on effect of Tiger’s resurgence: it will give exposure to an increased cross section of professional golfers. Those that turn on the television to watch Woods might become captivated with a young, care free Rickie Fowler wearing his customary all-orange outfit on Sunday; they might watch in amazement as Bubba Watson hits a drive over 400 yards; they might decide to henceforth follow and support Rory McIlroy after realising that there is more to golf than Tiger Woods. Woods can draw in the crowds, and once this all important first step has been achieved, there is more than enough talent and excitement – week in, week out – to convince the casual viewer that golf is in a purple patch; to convince the casual viewer to become a permanent viewer. Perhaps purple-patch is the wrong expression, as it implies that the end is nigh. Enthrallingly, that couldn’t be further from the truth. 2012 has the potential to be the best year in the history of golf. With the return of Tiger, along with countless other factors, expect to see viewing figures and popularity soar.