By Jay Betsill
After attempting to get ready for the Masters, and failing to make the necessary progress, I decided, in consultation with my doctors, to have this procedure done. I’d like to express my disappointment to the Augusta National membership, staff, volunteers and patrons that I will not be at the Masters. It’s a week that’s very special to me. It also looks like I’ll be forced to miss several upcoming tournaments to focus on my rehabilitation and getting healthy.”
With those words, Tiger Woods was gone…again.
The PGA Tour was without its most popular player and the sports world would be missing one of its biggest superstars for the foreseeable future. The television ratings for Saturday and Sunday of this year’s Masters were the worst since 1993. According to the Nielsen ratings, the average audience for the weekend coverage on CBS was 8.6 million viewers in 6.4 million homes and this is for one of the marquee events not only in golf, but in the world of sports in general.
Not so coincidentally, it was the first time since 1994 that both Woods and Phil Mickelson were missing from a Masters weekend. While Woods was away with his injury, Mickelson could not take advantage of his rival’s absence as he missed the cut for the second time in 22 career appearances.
No Woods. No Mickelson. No excitement.
In other words, the precise dilemma that many of the regular PGA Tour events deal with on an annual basis as they attempt to generate media interest, sell tickets, corporate tents and boxes and secure title sponsorships. Case in point: the two PGA Tour events based in Dallas-Fort Worth.
The year was 1997 and North Texas was the epicenter of the golf world as 21-year-old Tiger Woods was heading to the GTE Byron Nelson Classic for his first tournament since taking a month off following his historic Masters victory. There was a media crush on the host site, the lavish Four Seasons Resort and Club in Las Colinas, to cover the event with its stacked field that included names like defending champion Phil Mickelson, four-time Nelson champion Tom Watson, Nick Faldo, Nick Price, Davis Love III and Ben Crenshaw. The only name that mattered was Tiger and he was there.
Not only was he playing in the event, he won, taking home a first place check of $324,000 and in the process joined an illustrious list of champions that included Jack Nicklaus, Fred Couples, Mickelson, Price, Watson, Payne Stewart and Ernie Els. He also succeeded in alienating his peers by proclaiming how he had triumphed in Las Colinas with his ‘C’ game. Record crowds (estimated in the neighborhood of 100,000 on Saturday alone) filled the grounds of the course that was opened in 1983 as the 18-hole Las Colinas Sports Club morphed into the 36-hole TPC Four Seasons and Cottonwood Valley Golf Course complete with the Five Diamond Four Seasons Resort.
The very next week, the PGA Tour traveled 30 minutes west to Colonial Country Club where ‘Tigermania’ went into a new stratosphere. Not only was Woods attempting to win his third tournament in a row, he was also reunited with Fuzzy Zoeller for the first time since the latter uttered insensitive remarks regarding Tiger’s menu for the Masters champions dinner. Once again, DFW was the place to be not only for golf, but all of pro sports.
Zoeller was a non-factor, finishing 12 shots behind eventual winner David Frost. As expected, Woods was in the hunt until he found the water on No. 9 and made double bogey followed by another double on No. 17 that effectively ended his chances in Fort Worth. What the sold-out crowd was unaware of was that it for all intents and purposes ended Colonial’s chance of ever getting back the “Michael Jordan of Golf.”
Tiger would annually return to the Nelson through 2005, opting to skip the Colonial for the lucrative appearance fees at the Deutsche Back-SAP Open TPC of Europe event. He would miss the Nelson to defend in Europe in 2003 and watch his string of 142 cuts made come to an end on the No. 18 green at Cottonwood Valley in 2005. Following the death of his father in May 2006, Tiger skipped the Nelson again. The tournament’s namesake passed away on Sept. 26, 2006 and, like most of the other top PGA Tour players, Woods has not returned to Las Colinas.
The Colonial went as far as changing sponsors from MasterCard to Bank of America (Woods was under contract with American Express) to try and lure Tiger back to Cowtown, only to discover the harsh reality that it was unlikely he would ever return. The Nelson, also hurt by losing its prime date on the second weekend of May to The PLAYERS Championship, has had to survive without the world’s No.1 player and is planning a change of venue in to the new Trinity Forest Course when its contract with TPC ends in 2018.
The purses for both events— aided by the Tiger Woods-driven TV deals— continue to offer a first prize in excess of $1.15 million. Will a new date for either tournament possibly bring Tiger back to North Texas? Or perhaps could the emergence of Dallas native Jordan Spieth as the game’s next big star be exactly what the Nelson and Colonial need to escape the shadow Tiger’s absence lurking over both events like a black cloud of disapproval.
Much like Tiger’s latest extended break, only time will tell.