IN HIS ABSENCE, Padraig Harrington won the Oscar for Best Supporting Golfer. But it’s no surprise that the PGA TOUR is rolling out the red carpet for the return of its main box office attraction this week.
Much has happened since Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open Championship on one leg at Torrey Pines last June before hobbling off to have reconstructive surgery on his left knee.
Affable Irishman Harrington, and evergreen Aussie Greg Norman, have provided a few interesting sub-plots.
There’s an old adage in sports that no one player is bigger than the game itself. But in the case of Tiger Woods and golf, it comes pretty close.
Not even a rich man’s sport like golf has escaped the ravages of the recession. And the American taxpayer is increasingly underwriting the PGA TOUR tournament circuit.
No fewer than eight of the Tour’s 2009 events feature primary corporate partners that have received a combined total of $105.2 billion in federal bailout funds.
U.S. Bank has already announced that it will end its sponsorship of the old Greater Milwaukee Open after this year’s tournament in July.
And the PGA TOUR was dealt another blow last week by the news that the Stanford Financial Group, chaired by sports-loving Texas financier Sir Allen Stanford, is facing charges of “massive fraud” by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The Stanford Group sponsors the $6 million St Jude Championship, played in Memphis, Tennessee, in June, as well as the LPGA’s season-ending Stanford Financial Tour Championship in Houston.
The bad news does not end there. A total of 22 PGA title sponsorships are due to expire next year and without Tiger, TV viewing figures are inevitably down.
A massive 55% fewer people watched the thrilling showdown between Harrington and Sergio Garcia in the final round of the PGA Championship last August compared to the 2007 event, won by Woods.
TV ratings plummet during Woods’ absence
So no one was happier to hear the news of Woods’ return in this week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson, Arizona, than PGA TOUR commissioner Tim Finchem.
It seems Tiger’s fellow professionals are also happy, even though they realize his presence significantly reduces their own chance of winning.
Phil Mickelson, the man in form after winning the Northern Trust Open on Sunday, summed up what Woods means to professional golf.
“The reason why we all want Tiger back is because he drives the game of golf,” explained Mickelson. “He drives the television ratings, the sponsors need him in their events and the fans turn out to see him.
“We’re very lucky in golf to have the No. 1 athlete in the world. I never thought that would happen. We had some of the greatest players in history, whether it was Ben Hogan or Jack Nicklaus, but nobody ever reached the status of the premier athlete in the world before.
“He does so much for us on a national level here and on an international level throughout the world. We’ve missed him.”
Every sport needs rivalries and it will be great to see Woods and Mickelson go head-to-head again in the coming months.
Only time will tell whether seven months away from the game has done any damage to Tiger physically, or whether the birth of his second child will diminish his desire to win trophies.
One thing, however, is for sure. PGA TOUR officials will be keeping everything crossed that in the words of William Blake, it’s still Tiger, Tiger burning bright.