Bored by lackluster, Tiger Woods-free 2014 Masters? You were not alone

Harry How

The 2014 Masters produced very little buzz, and we have the numbers to prove it.

When a non-competing amateur beating a former No. 1 in an 18-hole round at a Tiger Woods-free Augusta is one of the more compelling stories of Masters week, you know you’re in for something of a snooze-fest.

Indeed, if you were less than mesmerized by the atypically flaccid finish to the most anticipated event on the golf calendar, you were not alone. And the absence of Tiger and Phil sparking the fireworks even casual golf fans have come to expect down the stretch at Augusta was not totally to blame for the rather massive yawn Sunday’s finale elicited from the sporting public.

The feeble ratings (final-round coverage was down 24 percent from last year) provide statistical proof to back up the overall sense that Sunday’s finale was a snore. For sure, there were fewer eyeballs on Bobby Jones’ azalea-adorned temple in the pines for each round, which was certainly a Tiger thing, and hardly unexpected.

"When Tiger is in the Masters, there’s going to be a spike in the ratings," CBS Sports chair Sean McManus conceded during a pre-Masters teleconference with reporters. "Will we miss the spike of not having Tiger there in the ratings? I’m sure we probably will but I’m not overly concerned that we’re ... going to have a tournament that’s not going to be the highest rated of all the golf tournaments in America."

Despite the double-negative tongue-twister, McManus’ and other broadcasters’ pre-Augusta protestations that "it’s still the Masters" did not pan out, and ESPN’s Paul Azinger predicted as much.

"It’s a huge disappointment," the 1993 PGA champion said in his network’s conference call ahead of Augusta about the vacuum left by Woods, who was rehabbing from back surgery.

"There's probably not another player in the history of sports [who] has had as big an impact on his sport as Tiger, as far as viewership and ratings and money -- maybe Muhammad Ali in boxing," said Azinger. "I just can't think of anybody that, when he's not here, the void is any greater in any sport."

Jordan Spieth did his best to bring the world No. 1 into the conversation with a stellar front-nine run on Sunday that had pundits envisioning the Masters rookie overcoming Woods’ still enduring mark of "youngest ever to win at Augusta." Then Spieth’s 20-year-old nerves showed up and it was all over but the tears for second-time winner Bubba Watson.

Even Bubba, despite turning off a sizable portion of the golf population with his polarizing actions and beliefs, has the crazy-long and go-for-broke game to inject some measure of excitement into the proceedings. He did blast that Bubba-bomb off the tee on No. 13. Then, with the outcome pretty much a foregone conclusion, he declined to lay up from the trees on the par-5 15th and instead whistled a six-iron through the pines, over the water, and barely made it over the green’s false front and over the back.

And that was about all that stood out from Watson’s rather pedestrian even-par back nine that had some viewers longing for an injection of Red Bull or something way stronger.

Even Spieth, with a compelling back story as a player with no status on any tour to start last year who ended up as PGA Tour 2013 Player of the Year, scripted the end of his fairytale first Masters stint early into the back nine.

"It did [seem like match play with his final-round playing partner] late on the front nine and early in the back nine," Spieth told reporters after carding four birdies on his outgoing nine and settling down to an even-par 72 final round. "Then after 12, Bubba was pretty far ahead and I had dropped back. So I was looking to make a couple birdies and maybe put some pressure on Bubba, but I didn't and so he was able to kind of make pars coming in and it made it a little easier for him."

Too bad Watson -- and many would-be viewers who had tuned out by them -- remembered none of that.

Bubba, who cruised to a three-shot victory over Spieth and Jonas Blixt, told the "Morning Drive" crew on Tuesday that he essentially blacked out down the stretch and had no recollection of his final holes.

"When I put my head down, when I tapped in the little putt, there’s things I just don’t remember, it just happened so fast," Watson said. "Like when I grabbed Caleb next thing you know I’m crying, waving into the cameras with the green jacket on. Everything just is a blur because it happened so fast."

To others not intimately involved in the outcome, it seemed more like slow motion:

How about the other guys who were supposed to make some noise last week?

There was co-favorite Rory McIlroy, who came up a shot shy of Jeff Knox, the Augusta National marker who schooled the two-time major champion during the third round. Still seeking redemption for his 2011 Masters collapse, McIlroy finished with a respectful 69 and a share of eighth place, but by the time he teed off on Sunday he was just playing out the string.

Defending champion Adam Scott and the oddsmakers’ other choice to emerge victorious could have, finally, toppled Woods from his throne atop the world rankings with a decent performance, but the man with the broomstick putter was swept away by a third-round 76 sandwiched by dueling 72s. It was the affable Aussie’s third attempt to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming the best in the world and he failed to do so, even with Tiger on the sidelines.

And what can you say about the legendary Lefty not named Bubba? A couple of triple-bogeys did in the three-time Masters winner and Augusta favorite who so longed to don that fourth green jacket and enter the rarified air occupied by Woods and Arnold Palmer. Whether he’s squarely in the hunt on Sunday or not, he’s likely to give the Phil-friendly patrons something to raise the roof about (in their traditional Augusta golf-clap way, of course).

In the end, it always comes down to Woods, whose absence hung like a cloud over the event all week. But for that 2013 flagstick and his recent back surgery, Tiger may well have been going last week for his 16th major championship instead of having to wait till next year to play for his fifth Masters trophy.

The numbers speak for themselves -- love Woods or hate him, you watch when he’s in the field, especially Sunday down the stretch when that old Tiger aura envelops the back nine like so much deer antler essence.

Woods draws eyeballs throughout the week. Last year, even before the drama of Tiger’s illegal drop at No. 15 had unfolded, ESPN captured a record 3.0 rating (4.2 million viewers) for Friday’s second round. Last Saturday, ratings plummeted 40 percent.

With Woods in the thick of things on Saturday, even after incurring that controversial two-shot penalty, CBS boasted a 6.3 overnight rating -- 30 percent better than this year’s Tiger-less Saturday, according to Sports Media Watch.

If Tiger’s in the ballgame, the leaders keep track of exactly where he is and the cameras record his every shot, sigh, club slam, and pump fist.

To those who believe the Masters trumps Tiger and the show would go on even without the rehabbing needle-mover, Sunday proved such conventional wisdom was not so sage after all. Which is not to say that the Masters has not provided flash and drama, even when the two golfers most associated for the past 20 years with Augusta histrionics do not factor into the finish.

Most recently, there was Scott’s overtime victory last year after Angel Cabrera’s electrifying birdie on 18 forced extra innings. And of course, there was Bubba’s shot for the ages to defeat Louis Oosthuizen in the 2012 playoff.

There’s no telling what shape the games and bodies of Woods, 38, and 43-year-old Mickelson, who missed his first cut in 17 years on Friday will be in next year, and as SBNation colleague Brendan Porath noted recently, men’s golf will have to come to grips sooner rather than later with the impending end of the Tiger era.

Until that time, though, we’re guessing all those involved with the Masters -- including the competitors who owe their hefty weekly paychecks to the hobbled one tweeting from home -- have their fingers crossed that Woods can bring the buzz back to Augusta.

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