Poor golf purists. Their game, the one with historically the narrowest demographics and the most limited viewership, has in the last few years widened its appeal in ways no marketing genius could have imagined. And in this extremely competitive marketplace ruled by TV deals, mass-market appeal and Q-ratings, professional golf did itself a huge service last night by pitting Tiger Woods against David Duval in a prime-time, made-for-TV match. For every pouting purist that found Woods vs. Duval offensive to their traditional golf sensibilities, I bet there were a half-dozen people (either Johnny-come-lately golf addicts such as me or the marginal/casual sports fan) who found the whole notion riveting.
Ultimately, no matter how large the field is when tournaments begin, you want it to boil down to the two best players going head-to-head at the end. Woods and Duval have been at the top of the sport's ranking for an entire year. Why wouldn't we want to see 1 vs. 2? Why wouldn't we want to see Woods with his dazzling brilliance going head-to-head with Duval and his methodical proficiency?
Don't tell me we have to wait for the final day of a major. This isn't the 1960s. It's not like when Palmer and Nicklaus were at the top of their games and there were maybe a dozen men who could win the best of the best tournaments. There are 40 guys now, minimum, who can win every week, including the majors. You want to see Woods vs. Duval? Hook 'em up in a match-play format that, if anything, is underused in professional golf. If they walk the 18th together for something dramatic this weekend in suburban Chicago, then fine; Monday's shootout -- won by Woods, 2 and 1 -- will be downgraded to exactly what it was supposed to be in the first place: a "good evening's entertainment," to quote ABC's Al Michaels.
What legitimate downside was there? That it was made for TV? I heard that one a lot.
Virtually everything in sports the last 20 years has been made for TV or, at the very least, arranged for TV. Everything baseball, basketball and football do is dictated by TV, from the actual matchups to the starting times to when during the games the timeouts are taken. You think Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs wasn't made for TV? How about the original Home Run Derby in the late 1950s? Or Michael Johnson vs. Donovan Bailey in the 150-meter showdown? I'd contend if it isn't on TV, it isn't sports. The only thing not televised is the front nine at Augusta. Personally, I'm suspicious. How do I know what Greg Norman shot on the front nine on Thursday of The Masters if I can't see it? It's 1999 and I'm supposed to take somebody's word for what happened on the front nine? Please.
This is not to suggest for one second that anything significant will be determined. It won't decide who is the better player. The winner doesn't automatically get a leg up for next week's PGA Championship. It won't have any impact on world rankings or help settle who is the player of the year. Nothing that happens in a "shootout" means squat, compared to winning tournaments, particularly majors. P.J. Predhomme, the PGA teaching professional at Golf Town in Gaithersburg and the man from whom I took my first lessons, said yesterday, "Major championships will always be what determines a golfer's place in the world, in golf history."
Given what he does for a living, Predhomme has to stake out a position in this debate of whether last night's Woods-Duval match was "good for the game." I'm glad we share the same position. "People seem to forget," Predhomme said, "that the PGA Tour was made by Walter Hagen's barnstorming. Byron Nelson, when he retired from the tour, would travel and play exhibitions. The only thing new about this is the amount of money.
"Anything drawing this much attention to golf," Predhomme said, "can only be good. I think it was three years ago that I attended a state-of-the-industry seminar and people were saying that the boom in golf was subsiding, that we couldn't expect to see a significant increase in business. Then, along comes Tiger Woods that summer and he's taken golf to another level. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing like having 144 guys tee it up on Thursday for a tournament. But how is that diminished by Tiger and Duval? Do you know how many people who have never played the game tuned in to watch them? You know, it's possible Tiger could succeed Michael Jordan as the most visible sports personality in the world.
"For the game not to capitalize on that by creating new interest would be a huge waste, to me. Every player and [teaching] professional out there ought to give him a kiss on both cheeks because he single-handedly has doubled and tripled the prize money. One big event like this, drawing in kids who probably haven't watched much golf, is better than all the `Support Junior Golf' public service announcements in the world."
Not only that, but it was fun. Is that okay anymore, to just tune in to watch something that has great entertainment value?
Woods-Duval was Topic A at every golf facility in the country yesterday, and probably is again this morning. Jeffrey Rosenberg, the PGA pro at the new P.B. Dye course in suburban Maryland, is another one who rushed to the front of a TV set last night. "I know most traditionalists I've heard look at this as a mockery of the game," Rosenberg said. "I absolutely love it. Don't people want to see the two best heavyweights fight? I mean enough about the game being so sacred; get over it. I know there's a jealousy factor because of all the money. But these are two of the handful of guys who are going to carry the game for the next 20 years, two of the spotlight guys. Let people see the excitement of these two men facing each other."
It's a funny thing, but nobody seems to recall so much criticism being directed at the Wonderful World of Golf series that for years and years matched two pros against each other at some of the best courses in the world. In fact, you can watch the grainy old films right now on ESPN Classic.
What's the difference? There isn't one, other than the amount of prize money. And anybody stuck on how much athletes make now ought to tune out or chill. It's a fact of sporting life.
Woods-Duval didn't do anything that Sarazen and Hagen, Vardon and Ray, Hogan and Snead didn't do long, long before them. Last night's California shootout just happened to be louder, brighter, more hyped, later in the day -- and on television. The purists, pout as they might, don't have any choice but to accept the fact that golf is a different party now. More people, folks with new ideas and sensibilities, have been invited right through the front door.