How a generation of golf fans lived and died with Tiger Woods

Apr 2, 2:18 PM

When I was 15-years old, I nearly killed my dad on the golf course.

My one desire was to drive the power cart, and when my father finally relented, I proceeded to make a dramatic left turn while speeding down a hill and almost topple the cart. My dad escaped, dashing for safety from the still-speeding vehicle.

Golf’s reputation as a game for the elite and for the rich is well known and well earned. A sport played on immaculately manicured courses of lush green, golf takes place at country clubs built to exclude.

This lily white vision of the golf experience rings true for some but it isn’t the golf experience. Many people grow up on dusty courses carved out of former cow pastures, 18 holes crammed into a few acres where errant drives and approach shots whiz across tee blocks and greens at regular intervals.

I received my first set of clubs just before my 14th birthday - a half set including only odd-numbered irons. There was no country club pro to teach me the game and no Stanley Thompson-designed courses ready to receive my sliced drives.

I spent time on the range refining my swing and played with my father a few times a year, mostly wasting his time on the course. Into my later teenage years, I spent more time playing with friends. When we became old enough to be entrusted with our family’s cars, we played and practiced more. A few of us even worked in the lower rungs of the industry, first in golf retail, then at local courses.

As I duffed it around the low-level public courses of Southern Ontario, a kid who spent his time on the munis of Southern California started breaking records and winning national events. First he won the US Junior golf title three years running and then three straight U.S. Amateur crowns.

As I came to know and love the game of golf, Tiger Woods positioned himself to shoot it into the stratosphere.

“In your life have you seen anything like that!”

Tiger and his father built a perfect golf machine from the ground up, and it was obvious even with the quickest of glances.

Tiger was fitter than everyone else on tour, the bulk of whom still resembled the drunken womanizer caricature of the local club pro. Where they wore audacious slacks and smoked a pack a round, Tiger preferred performance wear and boasted a muscular build. He monitored his diet and attacked courses and tournaments with an uncommon bloodlust.

Rather than old Southern money or upper middle class Protestant work ethic, Tiger was a kid from the L.A. burbs who pumped his fist and wore his emotions on his sleeve. He slammed clubs and hit it a mile. He won tournaments. He won and he won and he won.

1997 was Tiger Woods’ first full year as a member of the PGA Tour. He, of course, won the Masters in record fashion that season, becoming the youngest champion as well as boasting the largest margin of victory.

It wasn't long after Tiger's first Master's triumph that the PGA Tour realized what it had on its hands. Tiger Woods moved the needle. Tiger Woods was the perfect storm. He didn't look like the PGA tour pros who came before him, but more than that, he didn't play like them either.

His style and success shook golf from its doldrums and hooked sponsors and fans alike. The Tiger Industrial Complex took over the game. It overtook me, too. In my early 20s with nothing better to do, I watched golf tournaments and shook my head at the Tiger slam, his shots in the dark and those 250-yard two irons sticking to eight feet.

There was the Bob May shootout and the Pebble Beach comeback and the Masters and then another Masters and another and the chip-in at 16 at Augusta and on and on it went. Tiger could do no wrong. Countless Easter dinners ditched as Tiger’s exploits played out in the living room. A “what would Tiger do” ethos took over my own game. Should I change my grip from interlock to the more “modern” overlap? Tiger interlocks, so guess what? So do I.

The golf industry was attracted to the money and fans were attracted to the greatness. We call them generational talents for a reason - they come along so rarely. Watching Tiger take over the game was to witness greatness in real time. The sense of inevitability that crept into some of his major victories did not diminish the thrill in any way.

Despite Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Tiger's other rivals, there was no substitute for a tournament with Woods in contention. Events not on Tiger's regular schedule felt like the minor leagues. Even majors without Tiger in contention saw their ratings fall. The broadcasters compensated by shoving Tiger front and center even while he finished his rounds in early afternoon obscurity. The attention was disproportionate to his role in a given event but still reflective of his impact at the absolute apex of the game.

The smaller events suffered. As Tiger winnowed his annual tour schedule from 20 to 15 events, each time he was in the field seemed like a treat. If he was playing, we expected him to win. And, for more than any one person could expect, he delivered on those expectations.

The Tiger Industrial Complex

Tiger Woods became an industry and an icon and quite frankly bigger than the game. Then, of course, came the fall.

As the cracks in the Tiger Woods media facade grew larger and larger, the industry reeled as the cash cow staggered and fell to its knees before an expectant nation.

After the now-famous incident late in 2009, Tiger eventually made his return to the PGA Tour and public eye at the 2010 Masters. The Masters always seem like Tiger's home, in an ironic twist. While his great performances at Pebble Beach and Firestone, it is Augusta that is home to his most famous appearances. In his 17 professional appearances at Augusta, he has as many wins (four) as finishes outside the top ten.

But now, this.

Surely the PGA tour and Golf Channel each have an entire floor at their respective corporate headquarters dedicated to devising post-Tiger contingencies. Twice before he disappeared, after his legendary one-legged U.S. Open triumph in 2008 and his scandalous departure in 2010.

But Tiger always made it to Augusta. He always teed it up and four times he claimed the green jacket. Four times he was there in the Butler Cabin to congratulate the newest champion. This year, he heals in Florida rather than leaning on his innate knowledge of the greens as he tries to coax another championship out of a body that appears increasingly hostile to the idea.

At the signature golf event of the year, at the televised event that spawns more basement swings and backyard chipping sessions than any other, Tiger's enormous presence will be felt only by its absence.

This feels...different than the end of the Jack Nicklaus epoch. Jack did what most athletes do, slowly moved away from the game as his body betrayed him, making money and designing courses and generally maintaining visibility in the game.

For whatever reason, it doesn't feel plausible for the final part of the Tiger Woods era to unfold in that way. The game has changed too much. The great act of "Tiger proofing" changed the shape of courses, as equipment advances fueled longer drives and bigger hitters and the game's gatekeepers did their best to fight back.

But there was no going back after Tiger changed golf. The amount of money in the game was staggering, as competent but relatively unambitious players made more money than they could fathom.

The growth of the game and the incredible rewards for excelling at the professional level reached spectacular levels, Tiger's style and approach to the game became the rule, not the exception. Suddenly everyone on tour was a fitness freak and pure athlete. Everyone hit the ball a mile and spent hours with sports psychologists, immunizing themselves against Tiger's killer instinct and imbuing themselves with a pathological ability to make birdies.

The age of the Tour Robot was upon us. They played well and branded themselves efficiently and made money hand over fist. However, for those of us first drawn to the game by the thrill of Tiger — now older, with more mature lives and priorities — the state of the tour leaves a cold feeling.

Maybe the cycle continues and the faceless, clinical pros of today's PGA Tour take on the same prominence to the next generation of golf fans. I'm sure the reptilian appeal of Rory McIlroy resonates with some segment of the population. Perhaps the cartoonish bluster of Tiger acolyte Patrick Reed is more your style?

Maybe the next phenom is out there and he’ll bring us back to the game with the same passion. Maybe it's Guan Tianlang or someone else who takes over and re-shapes the game for new generations and new fans.

"It's tough right now, but I'm absolutely optimistic about the future”

For the past twenty years of my life, I watched and consumed golf through a Tiger lens. His exploits spoiled me. I know I’m not alone in coming of age as a living legend shattered records and smoothly marketed his way into the deepest recesses of my golf appreciating heart. And now, I know I’m not alone with feelings of alienation from a sport that used to keep me enthralled with the week-to-week travails of its professional tour.

Right now the golf industry is in a free-fall. Courses are closing and participation among young people are flatlining. The barrier for entry seems impossibly high and, like most professional sports, only the 99th percentile can dream of reaching the highest level.

I guess that was always Tiger's appeal. He made anything seem possible. He made ordinary kids feel like if they worked hard enough, they could be the best. He made those watching him think that he'd always make that long par putt and he'd always escape with an audacious shot no other golfer ever attempted.

It’s possible to move to a golf universe that doesn't include Tiger as the sun but I don’t think I’m up for the paradigm shift. Not until real life affords me more time to get to know the Tour Robots vying for the last big paychecks before the bubble bursts once and for all.

Is Tiger Woods up for the paradigm shift? Can Tiger pull a Jack in ‘86 and dramatically pull out a Master title in his forties when the rest of the industry counts him out? It’s a young man’s game now but if anybody could defy the odds, it’s Tiger Woods.

That’s the image his marketing team spent the last two decades cultivating and the belief I spent the last two decades buying.

By missing the Masters for the first time in both of our adult lives, Tiger Woods jerked a runaway golf cart to the left as we careened down a hill together. He doesn’t know I’m in there but me and a generation of golf fans are in the seat next to him. Do we bail out and jump or hang on to see if Tiger can pull it off? For the first time, we’re questioning his ability to recover.

Feature photo courtesy of Tiger Woods/Reuters