Impact Of Woods' Absence On Golf Becomes Apparent

Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis says Tiger Woods' absence from professional golf could prompt another "Tiger Effect." The Torrey Pines golf tournament, which Woods has won six times, teed off without him. Ticket sales are down 15-20 percent compared to 2008, when Woods last played it.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Robert Siegel.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And Im Madeleine Brand.

Its been seven weeks since Tiger Woods told the world he was taking an indefinite break from golf. He made that announcement on his Web site as news about his extramarital affairs went from bad to worse.

On the golf course, his leave really began yesterday when what has traditionally been Tigers first tournament of the season teed off without him.

Joining is now as he does most Fridays is sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. Hi, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Madeleine.

BRAND: So, its really only now that were seeing what sort of impact Tiger Woods absence will have on golf.

FATSIS: Yeah, in this round anyway. Remember a year ago he missed the beginning of the season because was recovering from knee surgery, and then it was clear that there is a Tiger effect lower TV ratings, lower course attendants, jitteriness among sponsors, and now its going to be tally the lost revenue one more time. This is going to be an interesting few weeks.

Reporters, TV networks, golf sponsors, manufacturers are all going to try to calculate exactly how much Tiger matters and whether the sordid nature of whats happened to Tiger Woods will make him more or less of a marquee attraction for the sport when he does come back.

BRAND: So, you think he will come back, eventually.

FATSIS: I think everybody thinks hes going to come back eventually. Its just a question of when.

BRAND: Okay. So, tell us more about this tournament that started yesterday without him.

FATSIS: Yeah, its Torrey Pines Course in San Diego, and Woods has owned this tournament. Hes won it six times since he first played it in 1998. Ticket sales this year are down 15 to 20 percent compared to 2008, the last time Tiger played it because he missed it last year with that knee injury. This is also the first big TV tournament of the year because it falls on the off weekend for the National Football League before the Super Bowl.

Last year, without Tiger, the rating for the final round was half of what it was in 2008. And at Torrey Pines this year, Tiger is dominating the conversation. Players are being asked about his absence.

Phil Mickelson, the number two player on the golf tour, said the game of golf needs him back. And then he said he wouldnt talk anymore about Tiger. Another player, Rocco Mediate, apparently surveyed the sparse crowds during practice on Monday and said to his caddy, a little different here.

BRAND: So, how does golf deal with this, I guess, elephant in the room? Its best player not only absent, but absent because of a tabloid scandal.

FATSIS: You know, I think it just has to pretend thats not why hes absent in some ways, you know, dont deny it but dont bring it up. And then you move on. Phil Mickelson right now is kind of the anti-Tiger. Hes older than Tiger at 39. Hes the number two player on the tour. He has very high favorable, most people like him. Hes coming off of a personally trying year, his wife and mother were diagnosed with breast case last year.

So, you promote Phil Mickelson, the golf channel is running promos for the next few tournaments says five weeks of Phil. And then when Tiger does come back, you handle it very carefully no fawning, no praise, no audible sighs of relief.

BRAND: So, how are sponsorships for these tournaments faring now that Tigers out?

FATSIS: Well, this has been a problem pre-Tiger. Golf is relied on the financial services, on the automobile industries as major sponsors for years. And those two industries obviously have been hit extremely hard because of the recession. On top of that, smaller companies that sponsored some of these weekly events but werent as noticeable nationally also have backed out for financial reasons from golf tournaments.

Take Torrey Pines, for example. This tournament had been sponsored for years by Buick, which was a major player in golf for decades. The automaker dropped all of its golf sponsorships after its parent General Motors filed for bankruptcy protection in the auto bailout last summer.

BRAND: And did Torrey Pines find a replacement?

FATSIS: You know, it did find an 11th hour replacement sponsor last week, Farmers Insurance. The company signed a one-year deal with one option year. For how much, we dont know. And given the economy and now Tiger, you know, the PGA has done pretty well to retain sponsors and has even signed some new sponsors. It added four new title sponsors so far this year.

PGA Tour will still have 46 events this season. Last week, it even announced a new event in Sea Island, Georgia in October, which will be sponsored by an accounting and consulting firm. And that does show that golfs demographic will always have some appeal to companies. And thats the message that PGA officials are drumming publicly. Golf has value with or without Tiger Woods.

BRAND: Stefan, thank you.

FATSIS: Thanks, Madeleine.

BRAND: Thats sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. He joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports.

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