PGA Tour: What Is Golf’s Future? (Part 2)


Sep 28, 2014; Auchterarder, Perthshire, SCT; European player Rory McIlroy smiles after winning the Ryder Cup on day three during the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles Resort – PGA Centenary Course. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It is hard to believe that this piece on the future of golf with a focus on the PGA Tour and beyond did not touch on Tiger Woods in part one. Tiger Woods is a big part of golf’s recent past, its present and will continue to impact the future in a variety of ways.

It would be easy to spend pages upon pages reflecting on Woods’ career however we are going to begin where the first paragraph led of which was following the 2013 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the last of his five wins that season and most recent victory, plus there are books for that anyways. Many of the timeline of events below are events I was able to cover in person and thus provides more detail of Woods’ recent struggles.


Woods weeks later complained and dealt with lower back spasms at the 2013 Barclays which were later said to first be felt at the 2013 Memorial Tournament and did not detect any injury but explained his tie for 65th place on a course he won on five different occasions. On March 2, Woods pulled out of The Honda Classic again citing back spasms stating it was the same feeling as he had at The Barclays. May 19 marked media day for the Quicken Loans National, a tournament he hosted and this was Woods’ first public statement:

“I think the only doubts that I had was prior to the surgery. I couldn’t function anymore… right before the surgery, I really couldn’t do much. Getting out of bed was a task.”

This showed that he had surgery and was listening to his doctors and that his status for the tournament was up in the air. A month later Woods decided to play the tournament.

In his pre-tournament press conference four days later, Woods admitted that the only reason he was playing the event was because it was his own. In the past it was his determination that pushed Woods to do better and earned the respect and admiration of his fans. Woods would miss the cut and then place 69th in The Open Championship the third of four major championships on the PGA Tour.

Woods later stated in his WGC-Bridgestone Invitational title defense that the goal was for him to get back to play The Open Championship and said that he has always healed fast. Time would catch up with him though and eight holes into a disastrous final round, Woods again withdrew. The funny thing was at the time of the withdrawal, my co-editor and I had just arrived on the course. This was to be the first time COC co-editor Matt Gajtka was going to see Woods play and the minute he stepped foot on the course came the end of Woods in Ohio. The wait would continue.

Back spasms would not stop him from playing in the PGA Championship where again Woods missed the cut and clearly was dealing with back issues. This was Woods’ last chance to earn a Ryder Cup spot and he wanted to prove to Captain Tom Watson that he deserved a spot. Woods finished the season ranked 216th in the FedEx Cup points standings. Woods has since shut down his season and is just now returning to the golf course in an exhibition event, the Hero World Challenge.

“Well, I just had hit driver for the first time the Thursday before I committed [to Quicken Loans National] I committed the very next day,” Woods said at his Hero World Challenge press conference. “I was going to hit less drivers in a tournament round than I would in practice, so I might as well give it a go, and I did, and unfortunately, I wasn’t ready. I didn’t play very well, and it showed, my scores were awful. I missed the cut there and I played poorly at the British. Played poorly at Akron and played poorly at the PGA. Nothing was very good. So having the next few months off, being able to get my body stronger, but also as I said earlier, trying to really understand where I want to go with my golf swing. Having an old motor pattern that I know has made the transition so much easier.”

Woods is still a very successful brand despite all of the lost sponsorships and recent years of unfavorable press. Forbes Magazine has placed Woods second on its list of most valuable sports brands. He had been first for years but now LeBron James owns the top spot.

Now you may ask why I went into as much detail as I did about Woods. Quite simply, Woods is an interesting case in which just over five years ago, his career and golf came crashing down. The public found out about Woods’ many mistresses and got an idea about his life on the course. This as well as his various injuries, swing changes and coaches of which he has hired Chris Como, his fourth, have caught up to him and now the future is unknown.

At the start of the Tiger Woods era, the future was him and Phil Mickelson who for years was referred to as the best player yet to win a major. According to Hank Haney, one of Woods’ former swing coaches, the two were polar opposites and although they respected each other also fed off of each other to achieve their best results. Woods both on and off the course was more dominant in terms of money and endorsements although both were the top two in terms of active players. Mickelson is more well-liked with players and often will play practice rounds in foursomes where money is exchanged with the team of two that wins collecting. Mickelson often takes younger players under his wing and positively influences them.

The current future is headlined by current world number one Rory McIlroy who this past season won The Open Championship, Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship in addition to winning the Race to Dubai [PGA Tour equivalent to the FedEx Cup] on the European Tour. McIlroy was also named Golf Magazine’s Golfer of the Year for a third time, a very respectable feat for a 25-year-old.

McIlroy is friends with Woods and the two enjoy each other’s company. With that said McIlroy was asked by the media about Woods and Mickelson.

“They’re getting into the sort of last few holes of their career, and that’s what happens,” McIlroy said. “You get injured. Phil has to deal with an arthritic condition… Tiger’s not here just because he’s been injured. He hasn’t had the opportunity to play. So it obviously just gets harder as you get older.”

Bob Smiley, a former golf writer attended each tournament Woods competed in during the 2008 US Open and went into a project which ultimately turned into the book Follow the Roar: Tailing Tiger for All 604 Holes of His Most Spectacular Season. Smiley went from not getting the mystique surrounding Woods to an absolute fan. This was a year before Woods’ life came crashing down and this was when he dominated tournaments and won several in a row before finishing second at The Masters. He followed Woods during each hole of the 2008 US Open as a driver was occasionally used as a crutch, but instead of packing it in, Woods knew he was playing Torrey Pines a course that he had dominated in the past. Tiger’s resolve as it has been throughout his career shattered the pain that was there. That tournament was his last for 2008.

Now Woods is certainly not the dominant golfer he was then and several golfers have caught up with and past him. Tiger is finally listening to golfers after coming back too soon from a back injury that another tour pro needed an entire season to return and then an additional season to get back into form. Three months despite several medical advances is not enough time and then Woods did not maintain it. The future of golf has accelerated because of these struggles and because of this and Navy SEAL training; golf is currently in a free fall.

Also dooming Woods, has been his various swing changes and now with Chris Como, Woods has hit the reset button for a third time, which this instance being the fourth coach, and the first that is younger than him, although Woods prefers to use the word consultant.

“Well, I think that physically, I just wasn’t able to do some of the things that we wanted to do in the golf swing,” Woods said. “I think I needed to go a different direction. I was very surprised and very excited to see what he (Como) felt my swing should look like and should look like going forward, because that was very similar to the vision I had. So that’s where we’re at right now.”

Woods’ swing chance will mirror an older swing and will take a bit less time than before to remember while taking less of a toll on the back that has caused him pain for two years. Fans got a glimpse of this swing at the Hero World Challenge.

While Woods will turn 40 on December 30, he can still play quality golf and is more confident in himself physically and mentally which is dangerous for the rest of golf.

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  • In part one in this series, I mentioned Shane Ryan. Currently Ryan is finishing a book scheduled for a May 2015 release entitled Slaying the Tiger: How Golf’s Young Guns Took Over the Sport. The book will touch on the changes both generationally and structurally to the PGA Tour. Tiger Woods will be a central theme in that he created the younger golfer in that they idolize him and resemble him in terms of physique and playing style among other things. Several young players including Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed and Dustin Johnson will be included and profiled.

    In my phone interview, Ryan reflected on the “Tiger effect” and how it may perhaps be his greatest legacy for the sport he has dominated for several years.

    “In professional golf, Tiger was unbelievably important,” Ryan said. “The Tiger effect was incredible in the sport. The purses went up exponentially, there is more money and more sponsors and it made the sport recession proof. Tim Finchem, the tour commissioner deserves a lot of credit for that too. These guys went through an economic downturn without missing a beat and there are not a lot of businesses that can say that. A lot of that is Tiger. When you look at TV ratings when Tiger is involved, the TV ratings are always up regardless.”

    2009 was a big year for golf when Woods’ exploits were revealed to the public. Quickly the tour had to recover and Ryan believes this accelerated the development and need of the younger player.

    “Golf is a very image conscious sport and a pretty socially conservative sport,” said Ryan. “There is sort of a thing of having their players have certain values. When we found out that Tiger had however many mistresses he had, and we saw his text messages there was nothing special about Tiger and he was kind of a bad guy from that ethical look that they want to preserve. I think it probably accelerated it in the sense that the PGA Tour knew what they were getting with Tiger. They knew people would still be interested in him, but what they wanted was for new guys to come up and be alternatives to Tiger Woods.”

    Among the current players that will threaten McIlroy for years will be close friend Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth. Fowler, also 25 is finally living up to the expectations that many placed on him. Ranked ninth in the Official World Golf Rankings, Fowler finished in the top five of all four major championships and has regained confidence thanks to Butch Harmon who coincidentally was Tiger Woods’ first swing coach and the man who helped the latter achieve his most success during golf’s boom. Spieth turned 21 this year. He started 2013 ranked 810th but now is 11th and played on the 2013 Presidents Cup and 2014 Ryder Cup Teams. Spieth led The Masters heading into the final round this year and has confidence evidenced by recent wins at the Emirates Australian Open which boasts a who’s who list of past champions and the Hero World Challenge another elite but in this case lesser field in terms of number of participating golfers. In both victories, Spieth entered the final round with a lead and then demolished the field.

    Woods has faced additional pressures with his success and McIlroy has started to experience these same responsibilities.

    “I didn’t grow up wanting to lead a normal life, I grew up wanting to win major championships,” said McIlroy at the 2014 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. “I think you can still do both. I think it’s become increasingly more difficult these days with social media. I just want to live my life the way I want to live it, and at the same time, I feel like I can still be dedicated enough and driven enough to try to become the best player that I can be.”

    Ryan believes McIlroy can maintain the ranking and with all of the hardships he’s gone through off the course which include switching to Nike clubs, a change in management [and lawsuit against previous management he is still in the process of solving] and a high profile breakup with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki he has put the hardest off the course issues behind him.

    “Just from watching Rory this year, there is nobody more competitive than this guy and he’s got that sort of pathological competitiveness where it’s an insult to him to be in contention and not win,” Ryan said. “He is so intent on winning and so focused. On the course, Rory won’t feel like people are chasing him down. I think he’s got a psychological edge over everyone in his generation now. Off the course, it is what it is, Rory is already there.”

    Already McIlroy has shaken the label of starting strong only to negate his work in the second round of tournaments. A pep talk with Jack Nicklaus following the 2014 Memorial Tournament in which the 18-time major champion told McIlroy that he did not look like himself. Since then McIlroy has shown that he can be the future of golf.

    The future of golf

    With McIlroy carrying the torch of being the future and promising young American talent, this leads me to the next portion of the piece which is about the children. Earlier, I said that in the past 10 years, participation in golf between 18-30 years old has decreased by 35 percent.

    Eric Amato is the Director of Golf and Instruction for The First Tee of Pittsburgh. Though the majority of children he and others involved with The First Tee teach are younger than the demographic listed above, he has taught players who have reached that age and everyone he teaches will reach that demographic.

    “The CEO of The First Tee says they’re 100 percent of our future,” Amato said. “We need more kids exposed. Golf is a game you can play at any time and at any age and you’re always competing against the course so you have a chance to shoot your best score that day.”

    Currently, Amato has started winter clinics for children aged 5-18 once winter ends. As you can see by the ages the last year The First Tee of Pittsburgh offers program is 18 – the same age which starts the 18-30 demographic which has sunk in recent years.

    “We need more kids exposed,” said Amato. “Golf is a game you can play at any time and at any age and you’re always competing against the course so you have a chance to shoot your best score that day.”

    The First Tee has nine core values it tries to instill in each child that can help them in life. These are honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment. Amato believes these skills are extremely important.

    “The nine core values are things displayed through actions,” Amato said. “The more we have kids who have coaches and role models and understand the difference between right and wrong, the more likely they are going to do right. It’s being reinforced at home, school and at an environment they choose to be in, like on the golf course. Those core values really make it an opportunity for us to truly have an impact.”

    The future of golf is still a strong one as Ryan said, it proved it was recession proof. Still the idea has to be entertained that golf may be a niche sport.

    “It’s always been a niche sport, it’s never been one of the big four sports,” Ryan said. “You could make a good argument that every sport in America is a niche sport except for football which is the one sort of infallible game right now. I look at tennis and how big it was when Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras were at the top of the game and now you have one of the greatest rivalries in tennis – a three way rivalry between Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, with Andy Murray as kind of the fourth wheel there but the game is not as big in America because we want American stars. Maybe golf is entering that phase a little bit.

    “The PGA Tour doesn’t care if golf is a niche sport as long as they can still make money and they still can. Sponsors are staying loyal, it’s a financially robust sport and they’re going to keep trying things such as The First Tee to get participation up.”

    Amato disagreed.

    “Golf in the 80’s and 90’s was a niche sport,” said Amato. “For it to grow it would have to be an all-encompassing sport. The name of this game is that anyone can play it and that they have the opportunity to be as good as they want to be at this game. I think that’s what golf is trying to do now with all of the initiatives they have in place.”

    Both Amato and Ryan provided their opinions as to their beliefs of what golf’s future will be.

    “Overall golf has a long storied history and has the opportunity build off that history by embracing the technology, change in the infrastructure we have today with the storied past which can make it continue to be successful,” Amato said. “If it doesn’t, 10-20 years from now, golf will continue to have to make changes or it will be a game that will continue to lose participation overall.”

    “People are going to continue to play it, but it’s always going to be a sport that people with money play because it costs a lot,” said Ryan. “It’s a sport where you’ll see a lot of the pros be rich kids. It’s going to be a more international sport; you’re going to see a lot more Europeans, Australians and South Africans who will challenge the Americans for dominance. I think we’ve seen the past few years not just the Ryder Cup, but major championships and things like that, the Europeans are playing better than the Americans and that there are better winners and just outperforming Americans. I don’t see that trend reversing. That’s the direction the sport is going. It will decline little by little participation wise, but I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”

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