Only a select handful of athletes in any sport ever become so transcendent that both hardcore fans and just casual types follow them regardless of how well they are doing. Michael Jordan during his glory years helped make the NBA a red hot television property. The New England Patriots and Tom Brady are the closest thing today in the NFL to being both a dynasty and a team that people will always monitor, even if they are defeated in the Super Bowl. When Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky were setting records in the NHL, folks who neither liked nor understood hockey still could tell that something special was happening and they needed to pay attention.
That has been the case with Tiger Woods since his days as an amateur. During his heyday whenever he would be in contention for a title, particularly a major, whatever network was televising the event was thrilled. His popularity led to the PGA being able to double and in some cases triple the amounts that golfers could earn for winning tournaments. The Golf Channel to this day credits him with ensuring that they became something more than a niche cable channel, and despite the fact that he hasn’t won a title since 2013, every time he’s returned to competition it has been a huge story.
Well, though Woods hasn’t yet won this season, the way things are going it seems he really may be back to being a factor. Over the weekend at Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament, he led the field over the four days in the categories of Strokes gained: Tee to Green; Approach to Green, and Strokes gained: Proximity to the Hole.
Translated out of golf speak, Woods had an exceptional tournament in terms of hitting the ball. He even told USA Today “ I haven’t hit it like this for a while.” Indeed, had his putting been remotely close to what it was when he was dominating the tour, he would have ended a five-year winless streak. But he missed seven makeable putts inside five feet, the most he’s missed in any event since 2004. He finished 72 among 73 players in Strokes gained: Putting,. “I just need to hit better putts,” Woods added. “This week I didn’t really feel comfortable with my lines and my feel was a little bit off. Consequently, I missed a bunch of putts.”
Woods briefly held a share of the third round lead, but ended tied for 23rd after having a final round 72. But his overall tournament of 72-67-68-72 left him very encouraged.
It’s a sign of how much interest remains in Woods that his performance got as much, if not more, attention than the fact Bryson DeChambeau won his second PGA title and captured the Memorial in a three-way playoff. He defeated Byeong Hun An and Kyle Stanley, and took the title by making an 11-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole. But that meant little to anyone other than DeChambeau and the golf faithful, which remains a sore spot for some of the golf nuts.
While none of the players slam Woods, and most want him to return to prominence because it puts more money in their pockets, there are some fans who’ve always resented a lot of what Woods brings to golf courses. That includes many people who neither know nor care about what’s regarded as proper fan behavior. Golf prides itself on being a sedate, orderly sport (one that also has a long and ugly tradition of exclusion, racism and sexism via its country club background).
The Tiger Woods fan base includes a good amount of folks more accustomed to sports events where boisterous fan support is part of the package. Some of the golfing bunch strongly dislike that attitude, and they also don’t like the fact Woods becomes THE story in any tournament he plays.
But all that gets balanced against the fact he’s such a charismatic figure, and that without him there’s no chance the sport would have grown as much as it has, nor become nearly as lucrative. So the networks, golf media and most of the players continue to cheer and root for his comeback. The handful who resent it will be just an out-of-touch minority.