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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

'Tiger bump' gives golf industry a timely lift

Woods' return to form has major influence on commercial health across the sector

Tiger Woods during practice for the 2018 Masters at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. The US golfer's return is giving a boost to the golf industry. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Tiger Woods during practice for the 2018 Masters at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. The US golfer's return is giving a boost to the golf industry. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Tiger Woods is back in Green Jacket contention and from country club bars to boardrooms, the former world number one is once again the tide lifting all boats in the golfing world.

Golf television ratings are trending upwards, so are equipment and ball sales while Masters tickets and even tips are experiencing a "Tiger Bump" as a rejuvenated Woods returns to the US Masters for the first time in three years on Thursday.

Much of the buzz being generated around golf's first major is emanating from a 42-year-old golfer who is closer to qualifying for the Seniors Tour (open to players 50 and over) than his last victory at Augusta in 2005.

But nothing gets the sporting public revved up more than a compelling comeback story and Woods is writing one for the ages.

"This is a little bit like a Lazarus resurrection here with respect to where he was,” Steve Mona, World Golf Foundation chief executive, told Reuters. "Only last September he was talking about whether he would be able to comeback at all. Now that he is the favorite at the Masters it is just astonishing.

“He is certainly in form. I don’t think anyone would be terribly surprised if he were in the hunt.”

Tiger Woods on the second hole during the first practice round at the 2018 Masters Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. The US player's return to form is benefiting the entire golf industry. Tannen Maury/EPA
Tiger Woods on the second hole during practice at the 2018 Masters at the Augusta. Tannen Maury/EPA

CBS in January reported increased ratings for weekend coverage of the Farmers Insurance Open, primarily due to the presence of Woods.

Final-round coverage on the network rose 38 per cent from a year ago. That was CBS’ strongest final-round performance at Farmers since 2013, when Woods won the tournament. Third-round coverage garnered a year-over-year increase of 53 pe rcent.

The growth in viewership no doubt reflected the presence of Woods, Golfweek said, who completed all four rounds in a PGA Tour event for the first time since August 2015. Golf Channel, which aired the early coverage, also reported some of its strongest numbers since the 2017 Farmers, Woods’ previous comeback attempt. He missed the cut last year and did not appear in CBS’ weekend window.

Industry tracking firm Golf Datatech also saw reason for optimism, with founding partner Tom Stine telling Golfworld in the same month saying he expects 2018 to be a good year for the industry. “I would expect we would see a bounce back in units sold this year, and the price points have been good. The inventory pipeline is pretty clean as well, and we're not seeing a lot of the closeout products that we saw a few years ago. I'm optimistic.”

And manufacturers in the $2.6bn US golf equipment sector have reason to be cheerful. Acushnet, parent of Titleist, and Callaway have both seen their stock prices tick upward. Callaway’s stock was up more than 30 per cent at the start of the year as investors took heart from the company’s robust revenue numbers and strong sales of the Epic line of clubs.

And as the greatest player of his generation, the revival of Woods, who dominated golf like few athletes in any sport ever have, can only add to that.

A prodigious talent who first appeared on television swinging a golf club at two years old, Woods grew into a champion by winning 14 majors in swashbuckling style. He became a crossover celebrity and very wealthy with career earnings totalling $1.7bn according to a 2017 report by Forbes.

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Having climbed to such great heights, Woods' fall from grace that started in 2009 has been all the more shocking.

A tawdry divorce, a DUI and years and years of injuries, surgeries and failed treatments sent sponsors scurrying.

The back that had caused Woods so much pain was getting no better and the golfer who had held the number one world ranking for a collective 683 weeks slumped out of the top 1,000.

Even the ever-positive Woods suddenly seemed resigned to a dour fate.

Yet after undergoing spinal fusion surgery last April the dark clouds hanging over Woods slowly began to lift.

Shaking off years of competitive rust, Woods returned with an encouraging tie for ninth at the Hero World Challenge followed by a tie for 23rd at the Farmers Insurance Open and a missed cut at the Genesis Open.

Then suddenly Woods grabbed the spotlight as only he can, announcing his return to form with three impressive results - 12th at the Honda Classic, a tie for second at the Valspar Championship and a tie for fifth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Woods' back now appears to be strong enough to carry the hopes of an entire industry that is experiencing a Tiger Bump.

With Woods back in contention, NBC/Golf Channel said the final rounds of both the Arnold Palmer and Valspar championships registered the highest ratings for a PGA Tour telecast, outside of the majors, since the 2015 Wyndham Championship.

The golf industry has also seen a spike. Bridgestone said that when Woods (who uses its ball) has been in the field in 2018, the average basket value with Bridgestone products increased by over 120 per cent compared with the same period in 2017.

"His endorsement [that we make the best ball] is more valuable than all of the science and data that we throw out to the consumers," Angel Ilgan, president chief executive of Bridgestone, told Reuters.

"It is just ridiculous that we can show them hundreds and thousands of testings with robots and projectile guns that we're the best ball, the most accurate ball. And the consumer doesn't believe us until Tiger says, Yeah that's true.

"During Tiger's absence the entire industry, the PGA Tour, we were all kind of looking who is the next player.

"Then when Tiger came back the entire industry is jumping on the Tiger bandwagon."

The trickle down economics of Woods' comeback are far-reaching.

During the final round of the Valspar, a bartender at a golf club raved on social media that tips were up 300 per cent with Woods in contention.

"I was slammed packed with people watching Tiger play, it was insane," said the post on Reddit picked up by several news outlets.

"I know it seems minimal but the economic trickle down effect this has when it comes to the golf world is hard to explain. I made at least 3X the amount of money I usually make on Sundays just because Tiger was in contention."

With Woods at the start of a comeback but on the downslope of a turbulent but spectacular career, it is uncertain how long this Tiger bubble will last.

But with his stock soaring everyone is buying in and Mr Mona believes that it could be a good long-term investment.

"That [bartender] obviously takes it down to the grassroots level and it is felt on many different levels and the most obvious ones are from TV ratings standpoint," said Mr Mona. "It's astronomical how much they have increased and there is one common denominator and that is Tiger in contention.

"You look at attendance at those events and it is much the same story.

"What Tiger does is he increases interest in the game ... they get interested and think maybe this is a game for me."