Tiger Woods says he’s trending. He’s talking about his form. The game’s administrators are talking about something else, and rubbing their hands at the return of the Tiger dividend, golf’s golden fleece.
The frenzy that greeted Woods’ rise up the Open leaderboard at Carnoustie, where he led on the final day with eight holes to play, has tempered to a degree following an indifferent weekend at the WGC-Bridgestone International. Opinion on the range at Bellerive, host to the final major of the season, the PGA Championship, has hardened, as it must, around the obvious picks, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy, the world’s No 1, 2 and 5 ranked golfers.
This is how it works. Any player is only as good as last week’s back nine. No expert wants to risk going all in on Woods in case the fairways prove elusive, as they did at Firestone, on a track measuring 7,500 yards set to a distinctly ungenerous par of 70. For the game’s stakeholders, however, it is enough that Woods walks to the first tee as a legitimate presence, rather than the basket case he had become.
It is barely 14 months since the video nasty of his incoherent steps under the influence of sundry prescription drugs was released by the feds in Florida. The Woods mugshot that went online was thought to mark the end of things as far as golf’s marque player was concerned, yet here he is back in the world top 50 from 1199 last November with four top tens in 13 events, including a tie for sixth at The Open. And golf’s tills are ringing. This is Angel Ilagan, the CEO of Bridgestone Golf, who signed Woods to play their golf balls after the withdrawal of Nike from the equipment business, speaking ahead of the Masters in April. “We had a forecast for the year of selling balls and in ten days we sold our entire forecast. We were back-ordered and scrambling to make more for the balance of the year. If he wins we are in a whole lot of trouble because we are not going to be able to make enough product. We did research studies on him. We saw the impact on increasing sales. His endorsement alone increases our sales 30 per cent even if he is not playing. The fact that he is playing increases everything.”
It is the same story in the broadcast business. NBC’s Masters audience was up 40 per cent on 2017. The final day’s figures were the highest in three years for televised golf on any channel in America. The PGA Tour reported similar findings when Woods chased victory at the Valspar Championship. Woods attracts eyeballs like no other, and this is good for business.
Should his day off on Monday, most of it spent in and out of ice baths, prove as restorative as Woods claims, and he exerts the same level of control as he did at Carnoustie, then expect Bellerive to succumb to the levels of hysteria that gripped the Angus Coast last month. Punters won’t need an arrow to point them to the tenth tee at 8:23am local time that’s for sure. The population of a small town will be gathered about Woods, McIlroy and Thomas on the first day.
The PGA Championship celebrates its 100th edition in St Louis and its final appearance in the month of August, its home on the golf calendar since the 1960s. The fourth major has battled a prestige deficit in recent years in relation to the US Open, the Masters and The Open, and latterly found itself squeezed by the growing importance of the season-ending, four-tournament FedEx Play-offs. Golf’s return to the Olympics plus the immense rise in scale of the Ryder Cup have further complicated the picture.
Historically the PGA was held in May, where it will revert next year, becoming the season’s second major after the Masters. This week’s prize fund breaches $10 million, with the winner banking the best part of $2m. Johnson, winner of the Canadian Open ten days ago, justifiably starts favourite. These days he is equally adept with a wedge in his hands as a driver, which makes him the anti-Rory McIlroy and irresistible on his day.
After obliterating the field in Canada Johnson went quiet at Firestone until the final round. Six birdies in his opening eight holes on Sunday had the leaders jumping and the bookies hiding behind the sofa. Thankfully for them, Thomas had the thing sewn up, romping home by four strokes. If anybody can overcome the gargantuan task of winning back-to-back on tour and defending a major title, it is the little fella from Kentucky. His partner in the final group last week, McIlroy, did the back-to-back shuffle of Bridgestone and PGA Championship four years ago. Back then he could string four rounds together and finish a hole as well as he starts them. Sunday’s retreat was symptomatic of a season that continues to malfunction from 150 yards and in.
McIlroy acknowledges he has a technical issue to resolve. “What makes me so good with the driver is sometimes what makes me inconsistent with the wedges. I’ve gotten into a couple of bad habits and that just makes it a little tougher for me to be consistent with a shorter club in my hand. I’m working on it.”