The tricky business of being Tiger Woods
Golf sponsors and manufacturers need icons, especially now that the sport is in decline in the US and Europe
Thanks to the generosity of a longstanding friend, I was privileged enough to attend and enjoy the hospitality of the penultimate day of the 147th Open Championship, held at Carnoustie in Scotland.
Frequently and erroneously referred to as the British Open, it is universally regarded as the premier event on the international golfing calendar alongside the US Masters, the US Open and the US PGA. It’s a long time since I went to an Open, previously attending in 1964 at St Andrew’s, and 1972 and 1980 at Muirfield.
As usual, this classic old golf course kept the best for last, with the wind blowing just enough to trouble the seasoned campaigners. The event saw Francesco Molinari winning Italy’s very first Open Championship, but for me it was more about the return of Tiger Woods to the upper echelons of world golf. At one point on both Saturday and Sunday he was out in the lead but couldn’t quite hold onto it.
At age 42, Woods doesn’t have many more major titles left in him, so it was hugely disappointing to his worldwide following that he faded towards the end. His former coach, Butch Harmon, forecast that this Open was more suited to Tiger’s style of play than any other. The fairways were parched due to the long hot British summer so the ball was running further than usual. He was therefore able to use irons rather than woods on even the longest of holes.As I stood on the viewing gallery at the 7th tee, waiting for Tiger to arrive, he was the sole topic of conversation, with an incredible following and universal appeal. As he arrived at the 6th green, the crowd swelled noticeably. And as he walked to the 7th tee, cries of adulation rang out and there was standing room only. He hit a mid-iron at the 7th and his worshippers moved on, following him to the next hole and beyond.
Woods hasn’t won a major championship since 2008 and yet he is by far the most popular player on the international golf circuit. His attraction reminds me a lot of the late Arnold Palmer, whose loyal fans were affectionately known as Arnie’s Army. After winning back-to-back Opens in 1961 and 1962, Palmer never won another Open but that didn’t diminish his appeal among Open spectators. Just as with Woods, his Army arrived with him and moved on with him. He was a legend and remained so until he died in 2016.
Golf needs icons. As good as Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and others undoubtedly are, they don’t have the gravitas of a Tiger Woods. Prior to Woods, there was something of a vacuum after the retiral of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. Probably the closest anyone came to Woods’s attraction in the very modern era was the swashbuckling Spanish golfer, the late great Severiano Ballesteros.
Prior to his personal problems, Woods was a role model for millions of youngsters all around the world. His athletic prowess, coupled with his elegant golfing attire thanks to Nike, lifted his profile to hitherto unimaginable levels.
Membership of golf clubs in the US, Britain and Europe is declining and many clubs are downsizing or closing. A revival in the fortunes of Tiger Woods would not only be great news for him and his followers but could potentially reverse attrition in club membership and bring new energy to the sport. Prior to last week’s Open, I did not believe that Tiger Woods would ever win another major championship, never mind close the gap between himself and Jack Nicklaus as the undisputed greatest professional golfer of all time.
After seeing glimpses of the old Tiger, coupled with a more measured and wiser new Tiger, maybe I should revise that perception. It would be great to see my schoolmate Garry Harvey once more engraving Tiger’s name on the exquisite silver Claret Jug trophy.
Chris Gilmour is an investment analyst.