'Tiger is bigger than the game."
This comment has become almost a staple in the media. But what exactly does it mean?
"Golf is much bigger than any one star, including Tiger Woods, because the game goes way beyond the PGA Tour, the LPGA, and country clubs," George Kirsch, professor of history at Manhattan College in New York City and the author of the exceptional book Golf in America , commented via e-mail yesterday. "The game of golf to me refers to all the municipal-course and daily-fee players on countless courses, along with the country-club members and professionals."
Jeff Horn, the chairman of the history department, chimed in with his view. He said that the phrase suggests "that watching golf on TV is the greatest sleep aid ever invented," Horn added. "I'm bored within 30 seconds and even my father [an avid golfer]can't make it through three holes without snores rocking the rafters. Without Tiger's charisma, his iconic status as an African-American and his pursuit of [Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major titles] why even bother? Without Tiger, ratings fall, sponsorships diminish and even fewer people give a damn."
Horn asked why viewers should even bother watching tournaments without Woods in the field. The answer is simply that he's hardly the only story, if he is the most intriguing. But anybody in the media who is given a platform and who does some research should inform listeners and readers that pretty much any tour player has a story worth telling.
Woods is the easy story. He's the story that appeals to many people who didn't follow golf before he came along and won't follow it after he stops playing. Many of these people, who the PGA Tour and sponsors are so eager to court, probably don't even play golf.
Gary Bernard, the 53-year-old recently appointed executive director of the Canadian PGA, and Jeff Dykeman, 25 years his junior and the CPGA's manager of business development, spoke to this point during a lunch yesterday in a north Toronto restaurant. Golf is their business. The game is their passion, their sport.
"Tiger quitting the game, all the controversy about grooves, people are going to play no matter what happens," Bernard said. "People who play love the game. My brother is in Florida and he could not care less about Tiger or the grooves. He just wants to know if he and his buddies will play 36 holes tomorrow. We're all saddened by what's occurred with Tiger, but the game is way bigger than he is."
Dykeman agreed, saying, "Golf's a pretty powerful sport."
So what gives with the "Tiger is bigger than the game" theme? If people are going to make the assertion, shouldn't they define their parameters? Barney Adams, the founder of the equipment company that bears his name, did that yesterday in an e-mail exchange.
The game, Adams said while trying to define what the word means in the context of Woods being bigger, "is about the business of golf defined as TV viewers which equals the base for ad money and all good things flow thereafter. When Tiger is out of the picture, viewership is about equal to soccer; hockey numbers are greater. Therefore he's referred to as bigger than the game."
But golf was a business pre-Woods and it will remain a business post-Woods. His reign as it influences sponsorship numbers, advertising revenue, purses and interest is the exception. The numbers are diminishing and will likely continue to go down. Get used to it.
Let's give Dr. Kirsch the last word on this, for now.
"But it is also true that Earl Woods raised his son to be not only the greatest golfer in the world but also one of the most important human beings in the world," Kirsch wrote. "The press coverage of his recent crisis proves that his standing in the world as a multi-racial superstar athlete and celebrity does transcend the world of golf.
"Millions of people seemed to care about his life even though they have no interest in either playing or watching golf," Kirsch elaborated. "So in that sense I would say that his reputation and impact extends beyond the world of golf. But again, the game of golf itself goes way beyond Tiger Woods. If he were to drop out of professional golf forever - I hope not - the game of course would remain part of the mainstream of North American sports."
Mainstream, he said, not fringe. As it was before Woods. As it will be after Woods.