There’s a point in the career of almost every great athlete when they become condemned to play out their remaining days in the arena against a symphony of keening and bell-tolling, when every jolt from the rumble strips inspires obituaries declaring not only that the competitive end is nigh but that they actually passed it a couple exits back.
Tom Brady added two Super Bowl rings years after eulogies for his NFL career began appearing. Roger Federer won another three Grand Slams after a five-year drought during which he was dismissed as too old and too slow. And premature obits have gathered like wedding confetti on Tiger Woods for about half of his career (I’ll confess to having written a couple myself). That happens when you’ve gone under the scalpel more often than Cher.
Woods announced another surgery earlier this week, a fifth procedure on his back to go along with the four he’s had on his left knee (he’d be broke if his health insurance didn’t cover pre-existing conditions). This latest health statement from Team Tiger lacked the sepulchral language that has attended previous issuances, with his doctors emphasizing the operation was successful and that a full recovery is expected. There is reason for optimism that he will be healthy 75 days from now when the Masters begins.
The oft-written coda for Woods’s career can be binned again.
Yet none of this can be comforting to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan, who must feel like he’s whistling past the graveyard every time Woods announces yet another invasive procedure. This week’s statement won’t have been cause for alarm, but it’s a reminder of the pressing need to evaluate just how the Tour can best prepare for its post-Tiger reality. Not from a conventional business standpoint—the new broadcast rights deal and sponsor loyalty have paved the road with riches for years to come—but from a straightforward perspective of fan engagement.
In the dozen years since Woods won the U.S. Open on one leg and the golf industry saw its golden goose teeter perilously close to the wringer, no single player has been able to float the Tour on talent alone. There have been periods of exceptional brilliance—from Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka—but none has risen to the dominant, iconic stature Woods enjoyed. Nor is there anyone on the horizon who promises to change that fact, regardless of what Bryson DeChambeau lovingly whispers to himself in the mirror each morning.
When Woods does finally hobble into the sunset, the PGA Tour will find itself reliant not on the performance of one, but on the personalities of many. It will need a cast of characters to sustain audience interest, players who can both engage and enrage. And that basic acknowledgement of the gladiatorial nature of sports fandom—that ticket buyers and viewers have license to jeer as well as cheer—will be a formidable adjustment for professional golf.
The Tour’s now-discontinued marketing slogan, ‘These Guys Are Good,’ was always closer to a doctrine than a catchphrase, reflecting a desire to present players as beyond reproach, a traveling caravan of upright, family-loving philanthropists who wouldn’t as much as look sideways at a puppy. As image-making goes, it was resolutely sober, highly successful and wholly synthetic. There’s not a family or workplace in America where that actually holds true, and certainly not in a lucrative sport peopled with driven individuals.
That entrenched mindset will need to transition as the Tour faces a future post-Tiger. There must be a willingness to let fans see a handful of part-time sinners while it deifies the full-time saints. It won’t take much: making disciplinary infractions public, ceasing the habitual clamping down on public needling between players, not smothering any online video that casts players in an unflattering light. In short, the PGA Tour needs to cast-off its girdle, to demonstrate less maternal protectiveness and more fraternal playfulness when it comes to it’s product.
Which is why DeChambeau strikes me as the ideal prototype to meet golf’s uncertain future. Not because of his performance—though he could deliver in that respect too—but because of his personality, his almost endearing eagerness to put himself and his process out there in painstaking (sometimes cringeworthy) detail. To wit: in his first start of the year at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, DeChambeau proudly revealed he’d been chasing swing speed so hard that he almost blacked out. (“I blacked out a few times over the break too,” one of his fellow Tour pros texted me with more than a hint of derision).
DeChambeau’s transparency has helped him become a figure of fascination, of admiration, of awe, of mockery and of scorn. That’s the menu sports fans demand be served, and he is a one-man banquet. Crucially, he seems able to handle that maelstrom. But DeChambeau is not the only box office personality about whom golf fans can and do feel conflicting emotions. There’s the trash-talking, pricklish Koepka, and a supporting cast that includes regular cameos by the dependably infantile Sergio Garcia, the volcanic Tyrrell Hatton and the [choose your own adjective] Patrick Reed.
Each man has surely run afoul of the Tour’s internal Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but all are potentially valuable counterweights to the decades of marketing pabulum that has arguably cemented golf’s image as too bland and too buttoned-up. Because some day, hopefully years from now, Team Tiger is going to tweet a statement that offers no succor for fans and no joy for Jay Monahan. Preparedness for the eventual tolling of that bell needs to happen sooner rather than later.
original article link https://golfweek.usatoday.com/2021/01/23/pga-tour-needs-plan-life-without-tiger-bryson-dechambeau/