By Jan Hubbard
Most of the time in sports, we’re fascinated by the possibility of a champion getting beat. Too often, we seem to get bored with greatness. Consider someone like Usain Bolt. He is electrifying, captivating and dominant.
But he’s lost a couple of races in recent years. Even after winning the two sprints at the London Olympics, we wonder when he’ll be beaten. It’s not enough that he is the first human to win the 100 and 200 at consecutive Olympics. One of the reasons we’re excited to watch him is, well, he might lose.
In golf, however, it seems very different. If you look at the TV ratings, Tiger Woods seems to be as popular as ever and there are ample reasons to believe that when people watch him, it’s not because they wonder if he’ll lose – although his life has been somewhat of a reality show in recent years.
Still, when Tiger was compiling 14 major championships, America rooted for him enthusiastically. When Tiger was in the hunt, TV ratings mushroomed. When he was not, America collectively went for a Sunday stroll in the park.
Woods has had a great year – three victories, eight top 10 finishes. But because he hasn’t won a major tournament since the 2008 U.S. Open; and because he has had four surgical procedures on his left knee; and because he went through such an ugly and public divorce, some wonder if his time has passed.
But when he is in contention, they always watch. When he won the Memorial this year, ratings for the final day were up 138 percent from the previous year.
When Woods was a factor on Sunday at the Honda Classic in March (where he eventually lost by one stroke to Rory McIlroy), TV ratings were up 78 percent.
While some golf and TV executives have hoped for years to find an electric personality to challenge Woods, there is no evidence that McIlroy is the guy. Phil Mickelson was for awhile and he has four major championships, including the 2010 Master’s, which is more recent than any Woods major victory. But there hasn’t been a good Phil-Tiger matchup in a major tournament in years.
McIlroy captured his second major last month at the PGA championship but America was not mesmerized. The Sunday TV ratings were 3.9. Compare that to the last time Tiger was in a shootout at the PGA championship in 2008 with Y.E. Yang. Those final day ratings were 7.5 – nearly twice what Rory could draw. And you can bet the majority of those people were disappointed when Yang defeated Woods.
So even though McIlroy is a good story – he even has a celebrity girlfriend, Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki – and certainly serious golf fans are enamored with his considerable skills, the only time he has mass appeal is if Tiger is in the hunt.
We could, however, see an advancement of the rivalry when the Ryder Cup is held at the Medinah Country Club outside of Chicago. The matches begin on Sept. 27.
It would be great theater – and no doubt NBC would be thrilled – if the last match on Sunday came down to Woods vs. McIlory for the Cup. That would be a huge stroke of luck, however. Matches are determined by each captain submitting a list of putting his players in order 1-through-12. The two lists are turned in and it is a simple matter of 1 vs. 1, 2 vs. 2, etc. There is no way a match can be arranged.
If U.S. captain Davis Love is concerned about TV ratings, however, all he has to do is put Tiger in the last group each day. Perhaps some people will tune in to see if he can be beaten. But it seems doubtful he would be so popular for negative reasons. Despite his travails the last few years, Tiger Woods is still as popular as ever. People want him to win.
And in terms of TV ratings, he has no rival.