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  • Writer's pictureScott Hatter

Searching for Tiger Woods

Tiger has spent the last 10 years trying to find himself, while the Golf world keeps asking, "who's next?"

It's 1993, and out of nowhere, comes a story about a young chess player, with a gift, who goes from really loving to play chess, to being over-coached to hate chess, back to loving the game, but now in a much healthier way. If you ave never seen Searching For Bobby Fischer , add it to your COVID watch list and enjoy, or should I say, "Trick or Treat." In case you need star power to whet your palette, Sir Ben Kingsley, Joe Mantegna, Joan Allen, Laurence Fishburne, William H. Macy, Laura Linney, Dan Hedaya, and Tony Shalhoub...WHAT!?! Part of the backstory of the movie is the mythical nature of Bobby Fischer, considered by some to be the most gifted chess player ever. Every player with a gift is compared to him and when large crowds gather to watch greatness unfold, the assumption is that Fischer has re-emerged from hiding to come back to dominance. The reality, of course, is that Fischer never really returned, and in actuality, while his gifts can't be ignored, he can most generously be described as "flawed" in character and lived his last days in semi-exile in Iceland. I don't claim to be a competitive chess fan, but I know how to play and watch in awe when the greatest players match-up, but at the end of the day, I know one name...Bobby Fischer.

Casual fans of golf can often be characterized in a similar fashion. They love Tiger - or maybe they love(d) Tiger. They don't know how they feel about golf or the PGA, and probably couldn't name more than 1 of the top 10 players in the world rankings. For so long, people have compared Tiger to Jack Nicklaus, but even that is ridiculous. Nicklaus had a real rival, in Arnold Palmer, and to a very slight lesser degree, Gary Player. The big three did more for the true game of golf than any other players ever. Their impact lead to multi-generational players of the game and greatly expanded Golf as an international sport of interest, especially in the broadcast space. But their reach would always be limited. For the most part, the big three are really the same demographically and represent a lot of what Caddyshack sheds light on in a satirical manner. They made golf more available for everyone who loved golf, but they never made it cool to new audiences.

Tiger Woods was cool. He was different. He hit it farther, yelled louder, pumped his fists, revved up the crowd, and oh yeah, also happens to be bi-racial and someone a different audience could identify with. In all of those ways, I had never seen anyone like him on tour. He also felt like a real athlete. He competed like a real athlete. I played golf competitively until I was 18, and we NEVER spent time in the gym. We ran as punishment, not to create stamina. I didn't know anyone who lifted weights. Tiger trained like a real athlete. He changed the way every golfer looked at the game and before long, even how most professional golfers prepared and trained. Guys like Brooks Koepka did not exist in golf in the 90's. In fact, he would have been considered "too jacked" to play golf in that era. Tiger changed all of that.

Oh yeah, he also won. He has the most career victories on the PGA tour and the second most majors behind Nicklaus. In the modern competitive era, there has never been anyone as dominant as Tiger was in his prime. From 1998 - 2005 he didn't miss a single cut. Outside of being impressive, that also means he made money EVERY week he played for 142 straight tournaments. His highest level of dominance, in my opinion, was from 1999 - 2002. In those 4 years, he won 7 Majors and 27 tournaments - including the infamous Tiger Slam winning the sports 4 major tournaments all in a row (from 00-01), but not in the same calendar year. To add a little more perspective, he only played in 78 tournaments in those 4 years, which means he won 35% of the tournaments he entered. There was a time where the Vegas lines were essentially just Tiger vs. The Field...and it was a tough bet. Here's the thing though, as impressive as those 4 years were, he was basically as dominant from 1997 (the year he first won the Masters) through 2008. 2008 may have actually been his most impressive season - he won 4 times and one major. Oh yeah, he only played 6 tournaments. And in the 2 he didn't win, he finished 5th in the WGC and 2nd in the Masters. He also won the U.S. Open, in a full "5th round" 18-hole playoff, WITH A BROKEN LEG! And then, well, some stuff happened. Major transgressions, in fact, that really cannot, nor should be, separated from his story at this point. You know those stories. But the fallout is still being felt. Not only did Tiger never really reach that level of dominance ever again, not winning another major until 2019, and only winning 16 tournaments from 09-19 (including a 4-year goose egg from 2014-2017). For all intents and purposes, Tiger was gone. He's still gone. Yes, he shows up and plays, and if you can ignore the "flawed" character of yet another master, he's fun to root for. You want to see that competitor roar, and fist pump, and rev up the crowd. But we rarely get that anymore.

Here's the problem, once Tiger started to fade, around 2009, the search for "The Next Tiger Woods" (henceforth known as TNTW) began in full force. There were always searches for rivals: Phil, Sergio, etc, but that was just to boost already record breaking ratings. Now, the sport was in trouble. But instead of investing, truly investing, in new talents, all anyone wanted to talk about was TNTW. The first attempt that I remember was Anthony Kim. By 2010, AK had won 3 times before turning 25, and was part of winning Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams. And by 2011, he was gone.

Next was Rory McIlroy. At one point, Nike even devoted an entire ad campaign to the passing of the torch. Here's the problem. One, Rory isn't cool. Two, Rory isn't American (yes that matters - you can't root for him at the Ryder Cup - it's like the Packers rooting for the Vikings in the Super Bowl). Three, in a 13 year career, Rory has 4 majors, and only 18 career PGA victories despite being a full time PGA pro for all but 3 of his 13 seasons. That's an impressive stat line, but it's barely 1 win a year, with the highest being 4 wins in 2012. Tiger won 4 or more times in 12 different seasons and won 8 or more times in '99, '00, and '06.

Then there was Spieth. Jordan even has the perfect 1st name to be great. And for a while, he was. There were so many similarities. Like Nike, Under Armour created a brand around him. He was young, talented, loud, and really good. in 2015, Spieth won 5 tournaments, including 2 majors, and the FedEx Cup. All in his 3rd full year on tour. He came really close to winning the calendar grand slam, finishing 4th at the Open and 2nd at the PGA. But, since that historic year, he's only won 5 times total, and not at all in 3 full years. I really wanted it to be Spieth. He's a Texas kid, seems to be a pretty solid dude, and looked like he was ready to take on the burden...until he wasn't.

Now, after last week's PGA Championship, it's Collin Morikawa. I'll admit, it looks good on paper. In only 13 months on tour, Morikawa has already won 3 times, including 1 major and at one point, made 22 straight cuts. He is now already #5 in the world. All of that is cute...Tiger won 3 times in his first 9 tournaments as a pro. I say that, not to discount Morikawa's talent, or how impressive he was from #14-18 in the final round of the PGA, but to simply underscore, we're searching for the wrong thing. Stop searching for Tiger Woods.

To continue to search tor TNTW is to simultaneously discount all of the amazing talent that exists in the field today. The PGA is an individual lead sport, and it faces challenges as all of its players are essentially independent contractors, meaning they choose what tournaments they want to play, what equipment they use, and largely control their name, image, and likeness. There are caveats to this of course, but for the most part the players control the narrative. All of that makes marketing a challenge, but as the PGA is essentially an entertainment industry (like all pro sports), it has to do something to brand itself and it's players. I'm not saying it's a perfect comparison, but a "sport" like WWE does an amazing job of branding while being an individual lead sport. You could argue Tennis is a better comparison, but they are already in the same place as golf from a US point of view and are working to find the next Serena Williams after decades of being unable to replace Sampras or Agassi. Again, these tasks are impossible because the sport is too focused on "the next" instead of pumping up the current.

For sanity's sake, let's just focus on the US players. You already have the "heels." The guys who are so willing to embrace being the bad guy, either by choice, or by circumstance, or oblivion. This is the role LeBron embraced when he went to Miami, and then went back to his role as "face," or savior, when he returned to Cleveland. The best example of heels on the tour are Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka. For a minute there, Patrick Reed seemed to fill this gap, but again, he's not competitive enough to be relevant, and instead of heel, he just seems more like an outcast. Koepka is 100% in. He is talking trash to the best in the world and point to his chest over and over. For the most part, he can back it up, but the PGA was great, because we saw him fall. Now, we need to root for him to rise again so we have a solid antagonist. Bryson is maybe a little more oblivious to his place, but his place is set nonetheless. He's yelling at rules officials, breaking clubs, and losing his cool at ants...literal ants. These guys are great to watch. The are jacked. They make a ton of birdies. They win a ton. They blow up a ton. And they each have the combined personality of my pinky finger. It's perfect. If you ever need a replacement for either of them, you have Reed right there waiting, and also Bubba Watson. Bubba wants so badly to be a "good guy," but he is too competitive and hot-natured to let this happen.

Then you have the scrappers. The guys you love rooting for, but always seem to fall a little short. These are the guys you are "pulling for," but deep down you know they aren't going to win. Unfortunately, two of my favorites fall into this category. Spieth is now a perfect poster boy for this team. Rickie Fowler is another guy who everyone loves, but he just doesn't win enough titles. Whenever he finally wins a major, it will be like when Phil Mickelson finally won the Masters in '04, his 13th season on tour. He is universally loved on tour and by fans young and old...he just needs to start winning.

I can think of a few more groups. The All-Americans - your classic player. Very talented, look like a nice guy. Someone unassuming that you could see letting your kids learn from. The beauty of these guys is that they can be interchangeable over time. Right now, I would slot Justin Thomas and Webb Simpson into this category. Before them, Phil Mickelson was this guy. Before him, Freddie Couples was this guy. You can probably think of 30 guys that could fill this role, and that's the beauty of it. Also, we of course need the Young Guns. Again, beauty in the revolving door here. Right now, this is Morikawa and guys like Matthew Wolff. Create some more fun groups...maybe the Bombers - Dustin Johnson and Tony Finau.

Get creative, PGA! And then market the heck out of it. And not just in ads. Put these guys in the same groups. Put Heels in with the All-Americans or the Young Guns. And do it EVERY WEEK. Work with the players to embrace the branding. Tee times are already done in flights based on merit, so it's not like it's random. Embrace that. Make it scheduled viewing. Make T-Shirts...whatever. However you do it, stop searching for TNTW. He's gone.

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