Woods' health a concern, but Masters and PGA will survive
Posted April 7, 2014
Is this Masters week without Tiger Woods a preview of golf’s near future?
So many folks think so that Woods’ status and the state of the sport without him will be an ongoing part of the dialogue - in and outside the players locker room - all week in Augusta.
When Woods underwent surgery to correct a pinched back nerve in late March and pulled out of the Masters shortly thereafter, the drumbeat of doom for the PGA Tour arose immediately.
Whether the 38-year-old Woods ever wins another major or not, pro golf will have no trouble surviving.
Television ratings may not soon approach the levels that marked Woods’ influence from 1997 through 2002, but that’s hardly a unavoidable conclusion, too.
During the early 1960s, when the battles among Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player were routinely compelling, there were all sorts of predictions that golf could not possibly ever again enjoy such a surge in popularity. Witty Lee Trevino’s emergence as a regular Nicklaus challenger in the ‘70s moved the needle even more.
Soon thereafter, Woods’ long anticipated arrival on Tour spiked interest beyond anyone’s imagination.
More than the issue of golf’s future welfare, the more pertinent question should be will there ever going to be a genuine superstar again?
The Tour has become so lucrative that the top 25 or so players really no longer need to win with any sort of regularity to strike it rich.
This staggering infusion of side money already was in motion before Woods debuted in 1996, but it exploded with his 1997 Masters win.
Weekly purse values skyrocketed as non Majors scrambled for a Woods’ appearance. As the tournament payoffs increased exponentially so did equipment endorsements, apparel merchandising, multimedia commercials and real estate promotions.
In what seemed like no more than a matter of several months, a dozen or so players were making more money by designing residential courses than they could never have imagined as weekly Tour troupers.
Ben Hogan’s example
Eventually the incentive to win will determine Woods’ future just as it will to those who give lip service to be the next to make a lasting impact.
But it’s only human nature that the need to feed usually overrules the need to lead.
Until first Palmer, then Nicklaus and Player, made their impact in the ‘60s, Tour purses were modest and fringe money virtually nonexistent.
“If you couldn’t win fairly often in those days, you went broke. It was about that simple,” Palmer said during one of his visits to Raleigh during the construction of NC State’s Lonnie Poole course in 2008 and ’09.
The example Palmer - and many of his contemporaries - always cited was that of Ben Hogan, who had to fight back from a seemingly hopeless combination of injuries that he suffered in a 1949 auto accident.
Hogan, a relentless Texan who died in 1997 at age 84, was born into abject poverty and did not graduate from high school.
By age 11, he was working regularly as a caddie alongside his childhood pal Byron Nelson.
Undersized at 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds, Hogan turned pro in the early ’30s but spent as much time doing pick-up jobs as playing golf until a trip to North Carolina changed his life and the sport in 1940.
In a matter of a few weeks that spring, Hogan won the then-professsional North and South in Pinehurst, the Greater Greensboro Open and the Asheville Land of the Sky events.
Those three wins - the first solo victories of his 8-year pro career - allowed Hogan to end 1940 as the top money winner on Tour.
He finished the year with just under $11,000. In 2014 dollars, that equates to roughly $175,000 - a very impressive haul until you take into account that players in those days got no travel and housing financial help from tournaments. Phil Mickelson collected $125,000 Sunday for finishing in a tie for 17th at the Colonial Shell Tournament.
When Hogan and his wife were in a collision with a bus in February, 1949 near Van Horn, Tex., surgeons said he was lucky to be alive and probably would never be able to play competitive golf again.
Then 36, he suffered a double pelvis fracture, a broken collarbone, a broken ankle and extensive rib damage.
During a 59-day hospital stay, Hogan had to relearn how to walk.
After spending the summer relearning his golf swing, Hogan returned to the Tour in November and promptly tied Sam Snead for the Los Angeles Open before falling in an 18-hole playoff.
Snead called Hogan’s performance the most amazing thing he’d ever seen.
In 1950, Hogan won the U.S. Open at Merion, Pa.
A year late, he won the Masters, the U.S. Open (Bloomfield Hills, Mich.) and the World Championship.
In 1953, he won the Masters, U.S. Open (Oakmont, Pa.) and the British Open (Carnoustie).
Hogan’s last Tour win was the 1959 Colonial Open, fitting on Texas soil and at the age of 46 - exactly 10 years after the wreck.
If nothing else, Woods has that Hogan blueprint to consider as he goes through the rehab process and those of us in North Carolina anxiously follow his status in regard to the Pinehurst Open June 12-15.
But Hogan needed to win tournaments in order to make a living. Woods, of course, doesn’t. As much as Woods may want to exceed Nicklaus’ 18 Majors wins, there’s a difference.