Tiger Woods is on a hot streak and playing at the top of the leaderboard in the 2018 Masters, and it’s no exaggeration to say the results of this tournament could change the future of golf.
Looking strong after back surgery, Woods is hoping for a return to form at Augusta National for a shot at earning his fifth green jacket.
Many stars have come and gone in golf since Woods’ dominant days in the early 2000s, but no-one has ever eclipsed the rockstar status he managed to achieve in the sport, and television ratings and tournament ticket sales have declined since his 1997 heyday.
But Tiger never left the public eye, and a nostalgic performance from the former champion could be just the shot in the arm the sport needs.
Timing is everything
A culmination of several factors about Woods’ Masters comeback make it such a big deal. In any other tournament it would be less critical, but to win the 2018 US Masters Woods will have to defeat at least five of the top players in golf today, each of whom is playing consistently.
The opportunity to show he can win after four surgeries and a rollercoaster courtship with the media is surely enticing. More enticing, however, is the ratings and revenue bump for the people putting on the tournament.
Winning won’t be simple. Woods will need to best a field of 87 players, including Jordan Spieth Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson. Any of these players could win, but a win from Woods would carry more meaning.
Back to the glory days
When Tiger Woods was consistently winning tournaments in the late 1990s and early 2000s there were about 30 million golfers playing. Today that number is closer to 23 million. Woods was and still is more than a golf star; he’s a cultural icon. Even people who don’t know anything about golf have heard of him, and some of them may watch the Masters just to see him play.
Just by entering the Masters, Tiger jacked the ticket price of the tournament up 77 per cent compared to 2017. It’s an effect few 42-year-old athletes have. Woods is still a franchise player. When he plays, people who otherwise wouldn’t be interested want to play golf. Spieth, Watson and Rose can put on a spectacle, but a win from Woods could be the beginning of a third act in his career.
Pro-football player turned sports analyst Cris Carter called Tiger Woods the greatest athlete to play golf. It might be a backhanded compliment for other great golfers, but it’s an excellent assessment of the way people view Woods’ career trajectory. Youths who saw Woods’ rise to stardom idolised him as an athlete first, and started playing golf early. Some millennials, however, view golf as too slow and expensive.
It could happen
To stage a comeback at 42 at the US Masters six months after major surgery is a story you don’t hear that often in sports, and that’s not all – Woods could play for the top spot in many prominent tournaments through 2018.
If you subscribe to the impact Woods had in his early years, a match-up between him and multiple young guns whose approach to the sport undeniably bears a connection to his own is a very ‘meta’ moment for the game of golf. Unconventional golf pundit Padraig Harrington believes Woods is capable but thinks he might not like how winning makes him feel.
Even if it’s uncomfortable, Woods’ irons and short game look good starting the tournament. Having finished the first day of the Masters four behind the leader, Woods is still well within striking distance of the lead.
Golf fans are guaranteed a spectacle, but they might also be watching a turnaround for the sport of golf itself.