I’ve always been a golf guy, whether it be playing or watching. That’s why it’s difficult to embrace the reality that the sport is at a difficult crossroads right now. In the wake of Tiger Woods’ loss of form and constant battle with injuries, golf has suffered in the ratings department.
Much of that is very predictable. There’s a crossover, mainstream appeal with Woods that has never been seen before with golf and will likely never be seen again. This year is really the first one where the sport has had to ask serious questions about preparing for a post-Tiger world and what it might look like. Golf will survive without Tiger, certainly. But so far this year, the ratings for the sport’s majors have fallen further than anyone associated with golf would like to see.
Rory McIlroy’s British Open victory resulted in Sunday ratings being down 28% from last year’s win by Phil Mickelson. The 2.6 rating matched the worst Sunday number for ESPN since taking over four-day British Open rights. The decline is a decisive trend for this year’s majors.
Masters: Lowest weekend ratings since 1957
US Open: Lowest Final Round rating on record
British Open: Sunday ratings down 28% versus last year
Oh, and if that’s not all, the “fifth major” also saw multi-decade ratings lows. The Players Championship in May won by Martin Kaymer saw its worst rating in 15 years.
Golf hasn’t gotten a lot of breaks this year with exciting tournaments though. Both the US Open and British Open were decided before anyone teed off on the final day. Kaymer led the US Open by six shots entering Saturday and five shots entering Sunday at Pinehurst. He ended up winning by eight. Even Kaymer’s immediate family was likely bored if they were watching that on television.
Similarly, Rory McIlroy had a six shot lead entering the Final Round this past weekend. Outside of Caroline Wozniacki potentailly rooting against Rory, I can’t think of many people that would have a real emotional investment in tuning in for 18 holes of golf where the outcome isn’t in doubt.
Nobody gets excited to watch a blowout, especially in golf. In that respect, perhaps the ratings for this year’s US Open and British Open are outliers.
What should worry the sport though is that this year’s major champions are supposed to be the elite golfers that make up the post-Tiger generation. Bubba Watson won his second Masters in a dual with young phenom Jordan Spieth and very few seemed to care. Martin Kaymer’s dominance didn’t move the needle at all. Rory McIlroy is supposed to be the “next big thing” and his victory failed to captivate a wide audience in the same way Woods and Nicklaus did. (And yes, he’s joined that kind of company with his third major victory at 25 years old.)
It’s not like golf had Shaun Micheel, Steve Jones, and Rich Beem win majors this year. These guys aren’t unknowns. They are supposed to be the next stars that carry the game forward into a new age. If fans aren’t tuning in to watch golf’s newest stars take shape and claim major victories, that is what should truly worry the sport as it prepares for life without Tiger Woods.