There has been some talk lately of the passing of the torch from Tiger Woods to Rory McIlroy, and it’s hard to ignore some of the parallels.
Rory McIlroy has put together dominating major performances in consecutive years — he won the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA Championship by eight shots each — and took over the No. 1 spot in the world. Not to mention McIlroy deciding to leave Titleist, the brand of clubs he’d played in his formative pro years, for a lucrative contract at Nike, an identical move to the one Woods made in his prime. Adding to that is the fact that the two golfers filmed a very cheeky commercial together recently that was reminiscent of the famous Larry Bird-Michael Jordan McDonald’s commercial that aired originally in 1993. The message is pretty simple: Tiger was the man, and is still somewhat the man, but Rory is the future.
But is that really the case? There are many reasons to believe Tiger is the last golf samurai, at least for the foreseeable future. How do I know? It’s not because I’ve scouted everyone who is going to play golf in the foreseeable future. No, it’s more just a process of how things unfold, be it sports or even economic markets. They expand to the point of saturation and then stagnate. Maybe too many people have mastered the craft making differentiating oneself a very difficult task. Or maybe things like social media, and the rapidly rising salaries have quelled competitive spirit and the actual need to play well to earn a living.
The lessons from other sports
Golf is not necessarily too much like other sports, as most other popular sports feature teams. So for the sake of this discussion, we will have to examine individual golfers as their own teams. Obviously there is a difference between an individual’s ability to dominate compared to a team’s, but not necessarily in the arguments I intend to make, so stay with me.
I could start with America’s favorite sport, football, or my personal favorite sport (yes, even above golf), basketball. But really there is no need, most sports develop the same. Think about the great dynasties over the years in your favorite sport: Maybe it’s the New York Yankees of early Major League Baseball. Maybe it’s the Boston Celtics of the 1960s, or the Montreal Canadiens of the 1970s. Or maybe it’s Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL. Notice anything about these? They didn’t exactly happen recently.
The last truly dominant team in major sports was the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s, closing in on 15 years ago and featuring quite possibly the most dominant athlete in modern team sports history (Michael Jordan, not Toni Kukoc). And even their streak of six titles in eight years was not close to the 11 of 13 that the Celtics of the 60s hung on people. What about the Yankees of the late 1990s? Impressive sure (four titles in five years) but not quite the same as their six of eight in the late 1930s. Or their six of seven they did only a decade later in the late 40s and early 50s. The Pittsburgh Steelers won four of six in the 70s — no NFL team has done it since. The Canadians and New York Islanders traded four-peats in late 1970s, with the Edmonton Oilers throwing out a five of seven after that. No team has as much as three-peated since then, in fact no team has even made three consecutive finals appearances since then. I think you see where this is going. Some sports may develop quicker then others, but the bottom line is every major sport has become harder to truly dominate over the years.
Think about it like Malcolm Gladwell would for a second. Is this a coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe it’s that sports has become more capitalized over the years, that exponentially growing salaries convinced millions of young athletes that playing a particular sport is better then working in an office. The Boston Celtics of the 1960s and Montreal Canadians of the 1970s didn’t travel in swanky private jets or stay in the nicest hotels. The average NBA salary in 1970 was $35,000, roughly five times the national average. A good salary, sure, but not out of line compared to managers or low-level executives, and certainly less than CEOs or high-level executives. Today, NBA players make 150 times the the national average. Think more kids aren’t working on their jump shot now?
The Steelers of the 1970s played before today’s television contracts, revenue sharing and the debut of the unrestricted free agent craze arguably made famous by Reggie White signing with the Packers in 1993. Salaries were once even worse in the NFL — in 1970 the average player got his brain beat in for $23,000 a year, and the average salary didn’t climb over six figures until the mid 1980s.
The trends in hockey are really no different, roughly 68 times the national average today versus eight to nine times the average in 1980, the time that the Islanders and Canadians were ripping through the league. Baseball? I could research the salaries in the 30s and 40s, or I could just tell you back then they didn’t allow African-Americans to play the sport professionally. So draw your own capitalization conclusions on that one.
What does this have to do with golf? Do you know what the average purse was in 1996 (the year before Tiger’s Masters win)? I will give you a hint. The winner of an event in 2013 will make almost as much as the total purse was in 1996. Google it if you don’t believe me. The Mercedes Championship? One million dollars. The Bob Hope was $1.3 million. Purses are five to six times higher in 2013. And this isn’t just inflation here, 1996 isn’t as long ago as you think.
Basketball fans might remember Glenn Robinson signing a $68 million contract in the NBA in 1994. There was a lot of money going around back then, just not in golf. Would Gary Woodland have played golf in 1996? Would Dustin Johnson? Would Rickie Fowler? Tiger made golf supremely profitable on the course (not to mention the value he brought as an endorser, which spread through the ranks) and this was also his demise. He brought more competitors and more real athletes to the game. Other golfers have flat out admitted this, and it takes only about five minutes on Google to find a pretty substantial list of golfers who fess up to it. Tiger monetized golf, but he made himself less unique. In Tiger’s first year on Tour, he was 10 yards longer than his closest real competitor on the course (Davis Love). In 2012, 50 players drove it farther then he did then, and everyone in the top 10 with the exception of John Daly and J.B. Holmes was a recent Tour winner. Nobody is overpowering the field anymore.
Steve Jones made news in 1996 when he won the U.S. Open despite coming into the event ranked 100th in the world. In 2013, Scott Stallings, Jonathan Byrd, Mark Wilson, Alvaro Quiros, Brian Gay, Retief Goosen, Y.E. Yang, Paul Casey, J.B. Holmes, etc., multiple winners all of them, are all ranked lower. Golf is freakin’ loaded people.
Money changes people
The big-contract curse is a well-known issue in team sports, pro leagues have held contentious debates during union negotiations over the rookie scale. The Glenn Robinson contract I discussed earlier was not brought up by accident. I refer to it now because it was long seen as the defining pro basketball contract, symbolic of an age of spoiled athletes who got paid too early and lost their desire to compete.
This wasn’t just relegated to basketball, as football recently changed their rookie salary scale as well. Could it have been in part because of Jamarcus Russell’s lackluster performance as a quarterback after raking the Oakland Raiders over the coals for a $61 million deal, of which half was guaranteed, even before he threw his first of many errant passes? My guess is probably. Golf will now face these same challenges. As Tiger Woods maintains his position as one of the highest paid endorsers in all of sports, with Phil Mickelson nipping at his heels, companies will continue looking more and more toward golfers to be their spokesman. Especially now with PED scandals seemingly affecting athletes all over the map. Who is safer to stand behind then a pro golfer who gets a lot of television exposure and looks as trustworthy as your next-door neighbor?
Does money change a player’s motivation? Jack Nicklaus did a controversial interview published by the Associated Press in 2008 where he questioned these very things, and which has since been the subject of much discussion. Nicklaus was quoted, among other things, “If they don’t win, they still walk home with a big check,” and also, “When I started on Tour, maybe one or two guys might have made enough money to make a living. …Then it got to five or 10. Now there’s a couple hundred guys who make a living playing golf. We had to really play well and scratch it out to be in a position to get endorsements. But we worked to try to build the Tour so they didn’t have to do that.” And how does that affect performance? “The kids today play perfect conditions every week. If they don’t like what’s going on, they’re finishing 10th or 15th and still make a check. I don’t think it makes them as tough.”
You don’t need to be a huge fan of Nicklaus to see that there is some merit to what he said. Today’s golfers can hang around the top 50 and become millionaires. They can have their houses on “Cribs” and their cars on “Rides.” Golf websites like golf.com can post features like “Pro golfers and their cars,” which shows off the expensive customized cars of Tour players like Anthony Kim, Stuart Appleby and others who have failed to win a major. Today, you don’t need a major to earn a substantial living, so winning multiple majors now more then ever probably requires a Tiger-like obsession with domination. How many people really have that?
Is the need for domination something that we will see again anyway? Does Bubba Watson really care if he loses to golf boys brother Rickie Fowler or Hunter Mahan, or is he happy to take home a $500,000 check and watch his friend win $1 million? With so much money going around, there’s probably not as much motivation to really beat the other guy, when players can team up for marketing campaigns and have it be a more profitable venture.
Global game and increased reach
Much has been made of the current level of interest in golf in the U.S. Is golf gaining or losing players? Are more players playing golf now then before? These are valid questions sure. But it’s somewhat missing the larger point. Golf is a more global game then it was 20 to 25 years ago. There are golfers popping up from every region of the globe, Denmark, Austria, Zimbabwe, you name it. American golfers aren’t just competing with a limited number of rest-of-world golfers for rankings and prize money. They are now the minority when it comes to the top 100. In 1986 (the first year of the modern golf rankings) all the way through 2000, more then half of the world’s top 100 came from the U.S. Starting in 2001, that number has dwindled progressively to where we are now: A record-low 31 American players in the top 100 to close out 2012. Europe has increased its representation from 17 to 40 over this span, a remarkable 23 percent increase in share. International players have also grown moderately, from numbers in the mid 20s, all the way to high 30s and now settling in around 30 total out of the top 100. More representation from various countries means more competition. Would Rory Mcilroy, Justin Rose, Luke Donald, Louie Oousthuizen, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia or Charl Schwartzel have played golf in 1986? Or would they have played something else, like soccer?
Even at home in the U.S., overall numbers of golfers have stayed flat or gone down in the last 10 years, a fact that often gets pointed out. But it fails to acknowledge that golf experienced somewhat of a second boom after Tiger Woods’ first Masters win. At that time, total numbers of golfers jumped from 25 million to just more than 30 million in five years, truly an impressive increase in such a short time-span. So while that number has now slowly come down over the past decade, it is still higher than it had ever been prior. Looking at costs of playing golf, studies commissioned by Golf Digest in 2008 showed that 30 percent of golf courses had initiation fees of $7,500 or less. An article published by USA Today during the recession in 2010 expanded further on how private courses are now more willing then ever to make deals, freeze initiations, give trial periods, etc. I can speak from experience that in my home town of Montreal, there are fewer clubs forcing initiations on members then any time in recent memory. Did I take advantage of this? Why yes. The private club to which I belong now waived my initiation fee in exchange for a three-year commitment, and this was on top of the club lowering its yearly green fees to all members. This would not have happened 10 to 15 years ago. Golf is suddenly a bit more accessible then it has been at arguably any time since the first golf course construction boom happened in the 1960s.
With more people capable of playing golf then ever before, both domestically and globally; with the king’s ransoms being provided to anyone playing regularly on the Tour; with club technology essentially frozen and real athletes playing the game already, does the likelihood of another player coming along and dominating the sport like Tiger Woods seem a little far-fetched? I think it does. Don’t worry about it though, Rory will still be fine, word is he just signed a pretty lucrative Nike deal. At least that’s what I gathered from his new commercial where he is chumming around with new buddy Tiger Woods, a man whose friendship he has earned, but whose level of success will likely elude him.