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IMHO: Golf needs to get past Tiger

  • Greg Fennell. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 4/20/2019 10:03:31 PM
Modified: 4/20/2019 10:03:29 PM

OK. Fine. I admit it. My cold, dark heart swelled a teensy, weensy bit seeing Tiger Woods win the Masters last weekend.

I reached my fill of Woods a long time ago. It’s a feeling built as much on the cold exterior he’d shown the world over the length of his playing career as the self-immolation of said career thanks to his dubious personal choices over the past decade. Hagiographic ESPN coverage of his slow return from back surgery — you’d think he was the official golfer of the Worldwide Leader or something — ultimately pushed me over the edge.

(My antipathy toward Tiger stands in stark contrast to that of Bill Wilkinson, the Valley News sports department’s Phone Guy — yes, he’s worthy of capitalization. Here is Bill’s pre-fourth round Facebook post on his expectations: “Pancakes: demolished. Beer: refrigerated. Caffeine: yup. Sunday morning final round of The Masters! Tiger is going to win and it’s going to make me feel like a kid again.”)

What’s nice is Tiger winning made Tiger look like a kid again. At least the one who swung a fist through the Augusta atmosphere and let loose a megawatt smile similar to four prior winning occasions.

Come Monday morning, however, the underlying notion of Woods’ victory became abundantly clear. As much as Woods needs to play professional golf for his own sake, golf needs him to play professional golf. And well.

Two headlines:

■From Bloomberg: “Tiger’s Masters victory is a $22 million win for Nike.”

■From the Associated Press: “Tiger Woods’ win could have golf industry roaring back.”

The PGA Tour’s current crop of pros is littered with 20- and 30-somethings who took up the game because of Woods. Over the past few years, as Tiger went through multiple surgeries to fix a damaged back, the tour seemed incapable of rallying behind one dominant player the way it had during Woods’ heyday.

You can debate all you want about whether Tiger has surpassed Jack Nicklaus as golf’s greatest on-course practitioner, but you can’t deny the effect Tiger has had on the sport. It isn’t just the influx of youths playing; there’s the explosion in course construction or expansion as well that has touched even the Upper Valley.

As Tiger faded, that surge came to a close and is now slowly collapsing back on itself. The National Golf Foundation’s monthly rounds played report provides a glimpse. I looked up last September’s report for New England — the weather’s still pleasant, and courses usually get a leaf-peeper bump in play — and found negatives across most of the region as compared with September 2017.

Northern New England rounds played were down 7.7% between the last two Septembers. The August 2017-to-August 2018 report revealed a 10.1% decline. July? Down 13.2%. (In its year-end summary, the NGF faulted a nationwide decline in rounds played on “colder weather and heavier precipitation than normal during the busiest months for golf. Many regions of the country reported that 2018 was among their top-10 wettest years on record.”)

It’s only one snapshot, but here are a few more: The golf course at Ragged Mountain has gone to seed, a years-ago redesign plan abandoned. The owner of Lebanon’s Carter Country Club wanted to build homes on the course’s property before the city shut him down. I’m still not convinced Dartmouth College administration fully supports keeping Hanover Country Club open beyond next year.

And still golf wants to ride the Tiger like it’s 1997. No wonder his back gave out.

This is a different Tiger now, or at least he appears to be. I enjoyed seeing him hug his children, his mother and nearly everyone else in a Nike logo behind the 18th green last week. I took a little bit of pleasure in his walk through the column of patrons on his way to signing his final-round card and guessed whether he’s answer the offer of fist bumps and high-fives along the way. (I think he took advantage of a couple, a promising sign.)

Now that he’s an early-40s father rather than an early-20s golfing savant, I think I can relate to Tiger a little bit more. Just a very little bit more. I hope he becomes more likable and accessible in the sunset of his PGA Tour days, but I’m not going to waste time waiting.

But let’s get one thing clear. The business of golf needs to be looking forward as it tries to keep interest in the game steady, if not growing. Tiger Woods can’t carry golf forever. No one stepped into the void during his absence, not that there truly was anyone around who could, and it’s clear that no one similar is on the horizon.

Tiger Woods won the Masters. Period. End of story. End of greater meaning.

Hey, at least it made Bill happy.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.




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