If we paint with a broad brush, golf has a hard time just enjoying good things.
Maybe it’s because the golf community, in general, is driven by fear. A fear of anonymity, a fear of being forgotten about. No one’s really sure why. Every shot, every win, every event results in some insipid debate about the state of the game as a whole, whether or not it’s growing, who’s watching. Golf fans and writers alike will insist the game is well-positioned. Detractors will cite aging demographics and slow play as reasons for a soon-to-come death. No other sport feels this paranoid need to justify its existence after every major event to people who don’t care for the game.
This weekend at the Masters should, hopefully, provide less of that, because Tiger Woods is still Tiger Woods. No player, media member, fan, parent, kid, sandwich vendor, valet guy, or even Grayson Murray would argue that a Woods’ win wouldn’t be the best thing that could possibly emerge from the weekend at Augusta. He’s a transcendent star, the biggest personality in the sport over the last two decades. He will draw more eyeballs, more interest, more viewers, and, yes, likely more participants in days following the tournament. Trying to concoct a take that he is not the sun, moon, and stars of this event requires dangerous, exotic levels of head-in-ass thinkpiecing. Do not do this.
Beyond that, golf’s supporting cast has never been more robust. Jordan Spieth has shown signs of moving the needle in a Woods-like way. Rory McIlroy’s next major would be his fifth. Justin Thomas is an emerging superstar. Dustin Johnson and Jason Day should win multiple majors. Sergio finally won one. Phil Mickelson is 48 years old and just won a month ago. Justin Rose has a gold medal, a major, and is better than ever. More young potential stars are on the way, too. Rahm. Pieters. Schauffele. Cantlay. [sighs reluctlantly] Bryson Dechambeau.
This week is going to be a crystalline drug of some form; please mainline it directly into my organs.
Yet, no matter how well-positioned this Masters seems to be, there’s still that paranoia — the lingering question which seems to sit over the head of the sport for the four times a year when it takes center stage over all else going on in the sports world. It is The Referendum. Who’s going to be next? What does this win mean for the game? Who’s going to be the next Tiger? There’s no other sport so incredibly affixed to what each individual result means for the game on some macro-global level. In some ways, it’s understandable. Golf is unique. There’s an $80 billion dollar industry attached to the ebb and flow of the sport at the professional level. There are jobs and livelihoods on the line here, because capitalism, or something.
The Referendum continues to exist, and persist, and proliferate because it’s largely a desperate search with no comfortable answer for those that drive it. Golf has deep-seeded systemic issues, which may not manifest in peril for the game now but rather two or three decades from now, problems that won’t be fixed one way or another this weekend. There is no silver bullet, no Woods to be had in the pipeline, not because none of the above listed don’t have that kind of ability — golf is deeper, more talented, more skilled than ever before.
There is no Future Tiger Woods coming because Woods was a cultural phenomenon — a black man in a overwhelmingly white sport who brought Nike and athleticism and TV ratings and course building and participation booms. Golf became cool. But perhaps that’s the whole problem, golf should’ve never been this big — it didn’t want to be, and it didn’t deserve to be. Woods’ star was just so damn big it began to overwhelm the artificially-created barriers designed to keep very specific people — lower and middle incomes, minorities, women — out. If it rains enough cash, you’ll eventually overwhelm the very racist, sexist levee.
Golf’s near-term future is fine. Woods looks like he’s got another eight or 10 competitive years, the PGA Tour is a reliable strong summertime rating week-in and week-out for networks even when he’s not in action, and the sport has a stacked roster of fun young stars who can keep things rolling for the significant future. Golf’s problems are 20, 25 years down the road. When there’s no Woods to speak of. When the game’s age group demographic continues to creep higher and higher. When greens fees are too damn high, clubs too expensive, and casual rounds far too long. When the game is still wildly inaccessible — both facilities and resources — to communities of color. When the ball goes so damn far that every historic, local, affordable municipal course is condemned to a future Whole Foods-anchored strip mall. No one player will cure those problems for the game, just as Woods did not.
If you’re looking for another silver bullet, another temporary reprieve to maybe inject the game with energy, and youth, and capital — stop looking in America. Longstanding, systemic issues will need to be addressed that stretch far beyond whatever player currently sits at the top of the game. As much as we love them as players, it’s unlikely that golf’s next cultural phenomenon will be Spieth, or Thomas, or Johnson, or even McIlroy. The closest thing to such might be Shubhankar Sharma or Haotong Li, though both will face all kinds of logistical, cultural, and even political hurdles to drive the kind of adoption that Woods did in the U.S., even if it was temporary.
That’s all for the future. For those of us who love the game despite its flaws, and can’t help but be sucked in by the allure of Woods on a Sunday, we will have this weekend.
The Big Cat is back, back at a major championship, healthy, and capable of competing. The stinger is back, the feels are back, the glutes are firing. Don’t get wrapped up in over-reading into the highs and lows of TV ratings, of obsessively monitoring rounds-played at courses in the weeks that follow.
Just relax, enjoy watching history, and enjoy probably the only cultural phenomenon we’ll see in golf back where he should be.