When Tiger Woods suffers on the course, golf's TV ratings plunge

By Leonard Shapiro
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; 5:59 PM

For a telling, troubling peek at the future of golf on television without Tiger Woods as a major (or even minor) force, simply check out the ratings for the last two events on the PGA Tour schedule aired by CBS Sports.

Two weeks ago at the inaugural Greenbrier Classic, which didn't have Woods in the field, the tournament did a dismal 1.2 national rating on Sunday, despite a thrilling duel down the stretch between the hottest player in golf, young American Jeff Overton, and veteran Stuart Appleby of Australia. Appleby came from seven behind after 54 holes and beat Overton to win the tournament by a shot with a final-round 59, golf's Holy Grail score, only the fifth time that's ever been done in a tour event.

But hardly anyone was watching.

The Greenbrier Classic took the place of the old Buick Open on the 2010 tour schedule. In 2009, with Woods in the field and eventually winning, that event had a robust 3.7 rating on Sunday, triple the number for the final round at the Greenbrier.

This past weekend, at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio, Woods was in the field, sort of, though he was hopelessly out of contention from the start after an opening-round 74.

Woods had long since finished playing when CBS came on the air both Saturday and Sunday. The rating Saturday was a 1.6, compared with a 2.4 the same tournament drew on Saturday in 2009, when Woods was high up on the leader board. On Sunday this year, the Bridgestone did a 2.3; on Sunday in 2009, with Woods ultimately winning the tournament, the number was more than double -- a 4.7 rating.

This tumultuous year, Woods clearly has hit bottom in terms of his personal life, and judging from the weekend, his golf game, as well. In the Bridgestone, he finished with an 18-over-par total of 298 and ended 78th, two shots better than dead last, his worst performance over four days in any tournament he's played since turning professional in 1996.

If you think Woods might be just a tad concerned about the state of his once majestic game, how do you think the networks, the tour's corporate sponsors and its tournament directors around the country are feeling at the moment watching him flail and fail miserably, looking dismally dispirited and seemingly uninterested?

Of course they'll all spin it positively. They always do. The tour has never been deeper in talent or more global in its scope, they'll say. Golf has always been bigger than one player, they'll insist. And how about all those talented 20-somethings winning tournaments this season, they'll point out, the latest being Hunter Mahan, a two-shot winner at the Bridgestone with a breathtaking final-round 64 to become only the fifth player in his 20s with three career wins.

That certainly was the message Jim Nantz, CBS Sports' lead golf broadcaster, was putting out in a conference call earlier this week, beating the drums to promote his network's coverage of the PGA Championship this week at Whistling Straits.

"It's been a landmark year for the game of golf," Nantz said. "For guys getting confidence and the internal belief they can win. The driving force is the play of the 20-year-olds this year. This is what the game needed. The next generation needed to be identified. . . .This is where it's going. Young and international. . . .I don't think we'll see anything as dominant as we've seen in the past. Guys are coming from everywhere."

As for Woods's seemingly going nowhere, Nick Faldo, Nantz's colleague in the CBS booth and a six-time major champion, said "he recognizes the problems he has in his swing. . . . Long term, he knows he has to do a little bit of rebuilding. . . . He's in a little bit of a vicious circle right now."

You think?

Bottom line, the reality is that without Woods playing in full flight, charging up the board Friday and Saturday, pumping his fists and hoisting trophies on Sunday, the game is just not the same, particularly for the millions of casual viewers who tend to tune in only when he's in the hunt.

"We all know the impact Tiger has on ratings," CBS Sports President Sean McManus said this week, insisting that he was "not worried" that Woods most likely won't be a factor again this week in the PGA. "I can't control it. You just hope for the best and that there is drama on Sunday."

The good news is that Woods could erase the memory of his lost weekend in Ohio in a hurry with a decent showing this week in Wisconsin. The bad news is that the course on the shores of Lake Michigan demands even more precision driving and strong iron play than Firestone required last week. And at the moment, Woods seems to have no earthly clue which way his ball is going from swing to swing, from putt to putt.

"I need to hit the ball better, I need to chip better, I need to putt better and I need to score better," he said after his Sunday 77 in Akron.

So tell us something we don't know.

Woods also now finds himself in the precarious position of being on the outside looking in at the American Ryder Cup team. He's currently 10th in Cup points, with only the top eight automatically qualifying for the 12-man team and one tournament left, the PGA Championship, to make a move in the standings. The other four spots will be selected by captain Corey Pavin, and Woods said on Sunday he doesn't want to play in the event unless his game improves.

"Not playing like this. I mean I wouldn't help the team if I'm playing like this," he said. "No one would help the team if they're shooting 18 over par."

Still, it seems unthinkable that Pavin would not select the No. 1 player in the world for his U.S. team, considering that the competition begins Oct. 1, giving Woods more than six weeks after the PGA to work on his game. Then again, another possible scenario might even include Pavin going to Woods and giving him the option to play in Wales or simply just say no and bow out gracefully himself.

The Ryder Cup surely can survive and perhaps thrive without Woods. After all, he did not play on the 2008 team at Valhalla in Kentucky, missing the event while recovering from major knee surgery following his victory in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, his last major triumph. The U.S. team's dramatic victory over Europe was a ratings bonanza for NBC, even without Woods in the lineup.

Would NBC Sports lobby the PGA of America and/or Pavin to include Woods on the American team at Celtic Manor? Cynics might suggest it would certainly be in the network's best interest, no matter what the state of his game might be. Still, call me naive or just plain dumb, but knowing Dick Ebersol, the head of the network's sports division and still the smartest guy in sports television, I'd be surprised if he even suggested such a thing.

The biggest surprise of all would be for Woods to play his way on to the team this week, a goal he set for himself very publicly a day before the Bridgestone tournament began. A top 10 finish might even get the job done. Right now, though, the odds of that occurring seem astronomical. Then again, he's Tiger Woods. Sort of.

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