In the shadow of Tiger
For the first time in 13 years, Tiger Woods is not playing the Open as he recuperates from knee surgery. James Corrigan analyses the likely effects of the world No 1's absence from Birkdale this week
Tuesday 15 July 2008
There was something of an eerie feel to the beginning of the first official practice day here at the Open yesterday, as the skylarks enjoyed an interrupted start to their worm-hunting and the Southport milkmen were not driven off the roads by anxious golf-goers. No, there was no need to rush to make it to the course in time to see the world No 1 tee off in one of his by now legendary early-morning practice rounds. Tiger is not in town and the most obvious effect was the comparative lie-ins everyone from fans to security men to the media will enjoy. But there are other effects. Many, many more...
There has been so much written and said that it is difficult to know who to believe, let alone who to side with. Those such as Padraig Harrington claim it will have no bearing whatsoever on his game – "I worry about one golfer, myself," says the defending champion – while others such as Colin Montgomerie say it could make all the difference on Planet Golf. Monty, for once, probably represents the majority and his comments hint at the excitement on the range.
"The door is a little more wide open than it has been," he said. "And it's given a lot of players on form the opportunity of winning a major that possibly they wouldn't have felt that confident about before. When his name appears on the scoreboard something happens out there.
"It does affect everyone else on that leader board. Of course, it does. It was a weird feeling at the US Open in 2006 when he'd missed his one and only cut in a major, because you knew that weekend he wasn't a factor. You felt like you didn't have to look over your shoulder every hole."
And that is just his name. When he is playing next to a fellow pro, the surrounding circus is, by common consent, the biggest distraction in the game and that even applies to the groupings behind, in front or on a fairway 800 yards away. As his friend Rod Pampling says: "Any of the top 10 players have got some scar tissue from Tiger. They'll feel a bit of relief, sure."
It may be a surprise to many, but the Royal and Ancient has not been living in fear that Woods' absence will have a marked effect on attendances. Thanks to the ever more popular trend of booking over the internet, more than 70 per cent of the 50,000 daily tickets for Birkdale have been sold in advance, most before the Woods withdrawal. But what about the question of walk-ups, particularly as the R&A is so rightfully proud of never shutting its gates?
Well, consider this. The attendance at the AT&T National in Washington two weeks ago was down by more than a fifth from the 139,000 who saw Woods play there in 2007. "It would be silly to say that Tiger's absence would not have any impact on the attendance," said the R&A chief, Peter Dawson. "He is such a big draw. But the weather could easily be a much bigger factor."
If it's sunny and, say, a Briton such as Justin Rose is making a charge, it could even rival the 230,000 who went to Hoylake. But David Hills, the R&A championship secretary, admitted: "I'd be surprised if we topped the 200,000 mark."
The viewing figures
The BBC says it has no clue yet how audiences will be affected, but it is keen to point out that Woods was not involved in last year's denouement and that the figures were right up there.
If the TV turn-off can be gauged anywhere it is in America, where the Tiger effect is quite staggering. In his first full professional season viewing figures for the final round of the four major championships were up worldwide by nearly 59 per cent from 57.6 million homes to 91.5 million. And since then they have risen when Tiger has been part of the drama of the stretch and dipped by up to 50 per cent when he has been an also-ran.
It is an accepted fact in American society that casual sports fans are interested in golf only when the man in red is prowling; so accepted that there have even been jokes made about golf's current plight.
"Mathematicians at Stanford [where Woods went to college] have calculated the smallest number known to man," said the talk-show, host, Jay Leno. "It's the viewing ratings golf will get without Tiger Woods."
The sponsors and advertisers
This is where things get really sticky, particularly for the American networks who sold all their advertising slots before Woods pulled out and there were, of course, no guarantees that he would play. They sell the event, not the man.
But without the man, their products will not sell and the last thing the networks want is disgruntled advertisers, with the country in recession and their rivals queuing up. Trade experts suspect a sizeable proportion will be offered compensatory slots during other high-profile sports events or preferential rates over the coming months.
It is all not so simple when Tiger's primary sponsors come into the equation. It has been estimated that Nike will be the hardest hit, losing around £35m worth of exposure in equivalent advertising time and a near £20m sales loss. Still, he has earned them enough in the past.
Out of a figure of around 800 here, there are 30 fewer media accredited for Birkdale compared to Carnoustie last year. Of these, nine come from the American press, although not all of them have stayed away because of Tiger. Newspapers in the US are reeling from advertising and circulation losses and this has affected staffing levels and trips abroad. But as Doug Ferguson, the golf correspondent of the Associated Press, put it: "If they were umming and ahhing whether to send their guy or not, then Tiger's absence might have been the deciding factor."
Nick Weinberg of Ladbrokes claims the main difference to the bookmakers this week will be the amount of sleep they achieve. "Basically, we can't win as much money, but we can't lose as much as well," he said. So what does that mean? Well, put simply, as Tiger attracts most of the money when he is playing it is impossible for the bookies to square the book, so they just roll with it, reduce the odds by as much as they dare and pray he doesn't prevail.
Now, the punters will disperse their hard-earned around any number of candidates (Sergio Garcia is favourite at 10-1 in a very open market). "Although some players will be losers on our books and some will be winners, the difference isn't anywhere as extreme as normal with Tiger," said Weinberg. Ladbrokes also claim that turnover will not be affected.
The man himself
Tiger Woods, an avowed sports TV nut as it is, has little choice but to watch the Open in his Orlando home as he revealed last week that, following his knee reconstruction, he can only make it from bed to couch and back again. Friends who know him best say not being at Birkdale will be driving him up the wall and watching a Garcia or a Phil Mickelson will simply act as more incentive to return – and return fitter, stronger and better.
"The guy has so much heart," confirms his coach, Hank Haney. "How can anybody think he won't play better than he ever has?"
Overlooked in the scramble to discover the winners and losers of Wounded Knee was Tiger's bagman, Steve Williams. But not by the caddies. In instances such as these, this caring, sharing group dip in and stuff a glass full of notes to send on to their sidelined colleague.
Three weeks ago at the Travelers Championship, the caddies put up a sign, "Steve Williams Benevolent Fund", inviting the boys to donate. As the money jar, they used a shot glass.
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