It is pretty rare to win a major award in sports and have the reaction be negative. The golfer Padraig Harrington won the PGA Tour player of year award. There is no question he deserved the award. Harrington won back-to-back majors to cap a career year. When the award was announced, I was in a room with three fellow sports journalists. We all looked at each other and said almost simultaneously, "well, he didn't win it against Tiger." Tiger Woods was absent from both of Harrington's major wins with a season-ending knee injury.
This is what golf has become to American sports fans. Golf is either with Tiger or without Tiger. All jokes aside, after a stellar US Open where Tiger and Rocco Mediate enthralled fans for five days, ratings for the following two majors that Harrington won were dramatically lower without Woods. From 2007 to 2008, ABC's ratings for the British Open were down fifteen percent. To look at the current state of golf, you have to tip your cap to what Tiger Woods has done for the sport over the past decade. Golf had been a popular sport in America before Tiger arrived on the scene, but he took it to a new level.
He made majors must-watch TV for the casual sports fan and even people who have no interest in the sport. I don't play golf, at all. However, if I see Tiger on the leader board, I plan my Sunday around his final round. I wasn't alone. Television ratings have gone up and stayed up during Woods' reign. According to Darren Rovell, CNBC Sports Business Reporter: "Tiger playing on a Sunday in a major is a cash cow for the networks. When he's not there, it's not a disaster, but it's close."
So for the second half of the year, the sport of golf got a glimpse of life PT (Post Tiger) and it wasn't pretty. Covering sports for a living, the story of the second half was not about who was playing well or winning those majors, it was about who was not there. That is not how it should be, but that is how it is. Two minutes after winning the British Open, poor Harrington had to answer questions about winning a major with Woods not present. Not fair.
Now the watch is on to see when he will return. When he was on our radio show in October, he pledged that he would be ready for The Masters. A promise to fans and maybe a warning to his competitors. The most dramatic part of the golf off-season was when Woods' caddie Steve Williams made disparaging comments about golfer Phil Mickelson in a New Zealand newspaper. "I wouldn't call Mickelson a great player," Williams said, "because I hate the [expletive]. I don't particularly like the guy. He pays me no respect at all and hence I don't pay him any respect. It's no secret we don't get along either."
Mickelson shot back. "After seeing Steve Williams' comments, all I could think of was how lucky I am to have a class act like Bones [Jim Mackay] on my bag and representing me," he said. Tiger had to clean up the mess with a statement of his own. "I was disappointed to read the comments attributed to Steve Williams about Phil Mickelson, a player that I respect," he said in a statement. "It was inappropriate. The matter has been discussed and dealt with."
The good part of this back and forth was it upped the rivalry between Woods and Mickelson. The bad part is that unless Mickelson, Harrington and other can step up to Woods' level, the sport will continue to be dominated by Tiger. This might be good fornow, but this year we got a peek at the future of golf without arguably the most popular athlete in the world on the course. Tiger took the sport to the masses. The concern is, when he leaves, will they?