He is perhaps the greatest professional golfer in history. With 79 PGA Tour victories, and 14 PGA Major trophies, he is consistently coupled with the legendary and record shattering Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus. His career earnings are the greatest of any player ever in the PGA, even accounting for inflation, and he holds the lowest career scoring average in PGA tour history. Named the PGA Player of Year a record eleven times, he is none other than Tiger Woods.
And he has ruined the game of golf.
Let me explain. From any reasonable measurement, golf as a sport and industry is in serious trouble. While soaring PGA tour prize money has surged in the past decade, this only masks the underlying difficulties facing golf. According to a new report by CNN Business, sales at Adidas, the owner of the famous TaylorMade golf brand, have plummeted and dropped by about 20% just in the past months. Callaway Golf posted similar results, and even Nike golf is struggling. There are many reports of a saturated golf course market, with declining revenues. Youth pursuing golf as a competitive sport is waning and even among many players who have tried golf, a growing number have walked away from it. Last month, Dick's Sporting Goods laid off more than 400 of its golf staff, citing slowing sales and a lack of interest. Most troubling is declining television viewership, which has driven golf's ascent over the past few decades and is now seemingly powerless to stop its decline.
I am a golf aficionado and greatly enjoy my weekends watching the sport. Yes, I have played it some, more in the past, but consider myself much more of a student than a player. I enjoy its variety, the changing conditions and courses, the drama of the tension and strain that most players face on Sunday afternoon as they realize a few shots can make the difference between a legendary career and an also ran. For many years, I attended PGA tournaments, most notably the ATT at Pebble Beach each February, and the value of conversation on the golf course for business is something I touch upon in my classes for MBA's.
But the reality is that over the past twenty years golf put way too much emphasis on Tiger Woods. As he ascended and ultimately eclipsed the careers of many other great contemporary players who likely would have been dominant players in other generations, the attention and focus upon Tiger became an obsession for the golf industry. If he played, the hype and buildup as the tournament unfolded escalated, even if he was not playing well. Click on any one of a number of prominent websites for golf as a sport, and his image, statistics, stories, rumors, and innuendo were everywhere. With time, one could see all too often what appeared to be players who were content to battle for second place. Few other than Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson and a handful of others could rise to the occasion to compete against the seemingly unstoppable Tiger. As an industry, golf made a fundamental mistake in business, and even now seems unable to pivot away from what has led them to this point.
Here, I want to make an analogy to something I have learned from both research and experience in entrepreneurship. In my MBA courses at PLNU one of the assigned books for their reading is Never Bet the Farm written by Anthony Iaquinto and Stephen Spinelli and as the title indicates, their advice is that one should never go "all in" on a venture or enterprise. This is simply a modern version of our grandparents counsel to "don't put all your eggs in one basket." Golf put all their "eggs" into the basket of Tiger Woods, and as he made his stunning ascent so too did golf. And as his injuries and personal troubles have diminished his consistency and appearances these past five years, so too has golf diminished as well. This is no coincidence.
But there is hope. Golf needs to return to respecting its players but not idolizing them, as it has with Tiger Woods. This is in no way a diminishment of his talent and career, but to date the golf press, media, commentators and websites continue to excessively fixate upon the trials and tribulations of Tiger Woods, and too often neglect the broader trends and personalities in golf. If emphasis was placed upon the magnificent breadth and diversity of both the male and female players from many nations, rather than the superstar status of a few, golf as an industry can make it through this difficult season. In a globalized world and with young people viewing traditional geographical and national borders as suggestive rather than mandatory, enormous opportunity exists to bring some of these exciting young international players to our attention.
There are other things that could be done, including creating golf mentors and green fee subsidies for aspiring golfers of all ages who cannot afford the services of course professionals and instructors. The PGA should be sponsoring golf teams at the high school and collegiate level and not just at the elite schools. Individual players could do more within their own communities to be ambassadors for the sport. Manufacturers and retailers of golf clothing and equipment should consider donating items to a broader population than is currently done.
The window for golf is closing, and closing rapidly. If a new attitude and approach does not emerge in the near future, embracing not what golf was but what it can be, for a broader and more diverse group of people, golf will be relegated to a few great courses and tournaments. And this will be a loss for all of us, whether we play or not. Give us less Tiger, and give it to us soon.