Tiger Woods was a big story this weekend, but not the only story … and that’s good news for golf
In the later stages of his career, Tiger Woods slowly moves up the golf schedule somewhere between classic rock bands creaking to 50-year-old hits and Tom Brady leading teams to championships in his 40s. Woods fits in somewhere in Albert Pujol’s final season. – far from a champion caliber, but still capable of fireworks.
Much of the attention Woods garnered herself this week at the Genesis Invitational was due to an ill-timed joke. On the track, he hit a number – an achievement in itself, as he hasn’t played a tournament in seven months and hasn’t been cut since the Masters – made several long putts and outpaced many of his competitors. (Last statistic led to a joke.) He also did a little PR, check the “Meet Tiger Woods” box on the sign of a young man who survived cancer.
Woods played well enough that he was only on the ninth hole on Sunday, while eventual winner John Rahm started in the final group. Given that he often slammed his barrel and left the track before the leaders even landed his first shot – if he went out on the weekend at all – this is considered progress.
Ever since Woods hit that hydrant on Thanksgiving in 2009, the PGA Tour has had to reckon with what life will be like after Woods. The Woods scandal was the middle of his career, and not the end, as it seemed then. This means the tour has spent over a decade trying to figure out how to wean itself off the fire hose of content and interest that Tiger Woods is… and finally, and just in time, there are positive signs that this is happening.
“There are a lot of new faces here that will be the future of our tour,” Woods said after his Sunday round. “It’s nice to see the turnover. It’s nice to see the guys who are playing the best now. You see what Rambo does, what Max does [Homa] is doing this year to see them climb the golf course like this, that’s what it’s all about.”
It’s still early days, but the 2022 golf season series Full Swing has appealed to viewers as much as, say, the fortuitous opening of the Midwest Insurance Company in March. “Full Swing” spent most of the past week in the Netflix Top 10 charts and introduced casual viewers to a set of non-tiger characters that a far smaller portion of golf fans already know well: the good-natured Tony Finau, the fun-loving eccentric Joel Damen, the analytical Matt Fitzpatrick, hypercompetitive Justin Thomas.
This is the way forward for golf, allowing fans to connect with players on a personal level. Woods never invited fans this far into his world, but he didn’t need to – his entire public persona was based on “I’ll kick your ass and step over your body.” That’s all you need to show if you’re capable of adjusting the field, but right now no one can do that on a regular basis.
Well, almost no one. Three players have already topped the increasingly raspy Official World Golf Rankings this year, and each personifies a different style of golfer: Rory McIlroy, already an immortal icon; Scotty Scheffler, humble golf bro; and Ram, arguably the toughest contender since Woods, with a similar winning trajectory.
Just as there were several “next Jordans” in the years after Michael, there were several “next tigers” in the post-Hydrant era—McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, and Brooks Kepka, among others, won several major tournaments during the Woods era. won one. However, Ram brings something different to the game: a complete and dominant game, yes, but also a sense of the game’s story, a newfound love of fatherhood, and an intensity that sometimes comes out as a volcanic temperament. In other words, he is both admirable and worthy of respect.
In addition, he fulfills the most basic requirement for attracting attention: he collects armfuls of trophies. No player since Johnny Miller in 1975 has won as many early seasons as three Rams this year. He fought off several rocky Sunday holes to beat Max Homa at the Riviera, a course where Woods and Jack Nicklaus together have exactly zero wins.
“I’ve been extremely disciplined my entire career, but now I’m seeing the fruits of years of hard work,” Ram said after the win that brought him back to number one in the rankings. “Obviously when you play well it’s really fun and when you win tournaments it’s a lot of fun.”
The numbers tell the story of golf, but the numbers are yet to come. Eat some significant hints there that Full Swing season 2 is in its early stages. The ratings numbers for Ram’s run are not impressive, but then golf ratings, with the exception of major tournaments and tiger tournaments, tend to be rather shaky.
Still up in the air: How the number 54 – in Roman numerals, LIV – will affect the tour this season. The second season of LIV starts later this week, and the league no longer has the “it’s new, let’s check it out” factor. Will there be enough innovation and new entrants, two of whom, Mito Pereira and Thomas Peters, recently withdrew from the tour, to keep the second round going, or will the LIV continue to split golf? Again, this is TBD.
Woods, if he wanted to, could single-handedly make the LIV Golf a viable venture. The offer was there, no matter how seriously Woods took it. Instead, he stayed with the PGA Tour – moreover, he took the opportunity to remake the PGA Tour as he wished. This past weekend – one of the new “sublime events” of the tour, with stronger margins and fatter wallets – was proof of that. Woods made a trail behind him, and Ram, at least, follows it. Will the audience follow?
The galleries will cheer for Woods whenever and wherever he performs. Making them stay until the end of the day after he’s done is the trick.