The Tiger Effect – the boost to the business of golf that Woods has provided during his 26-year pro career – is the stuff of sports industry legend. Woods’ swift ascent to godlike status brought an influx of new sponsors to the game and sent prize money skyward. Key to this virtuous cycle was that viewers couldn’t get enough of golf’s superstar; Tiger has always been box office.
The two majors with the highest final-round US television ratings are – by far – the 1997 Masters, when Woods became the tournament’s youngest ever winner by a record 12-shot margin that has never been matched, and the 2001 Masters, when he achieved the feat – dubbed the Tiger Slam – of holding all four major titles at once. In fact, all of the top-rating majors of the 21st century featured Woods either winning or in contention.
So television executives in the US and beyond must have been rubbing their hands with glee earlier this week when it emerged that the 15-time major winner might tee it up next week at Augusta National. Woods has not played a 72-hole tournament since almost losing his right leg in a car crash early last year but prompted feverish speculation about a competitive comeback at the Masters when he flew to Georgia to play a practice round on Tuesday.
It would be a remarkable storyline, yet in keeping with the 46-year-old’s flair for the spectacular. Woods conjured one of the most memorable comebacks in sporting history when, 11 injury-riddled years after his last major title, he claimed a fifth green jacket with a one-shot victory at the 2019 Masters.
Surprisingly, that tournament pulled in the lowest US TV audience of any final round of the Masters since the pre-Tiger era. Possible explanations include an earlier than usual Sunday start time and record numbers of people watching online. Perhaps most significantly, Masters viewing figures have been on the slide for a decade and they have only fallen further since 2019.
So is the Tiger Effect over? Not if his last event is anything to go by. Woods played the 36-hole PNC Championship alongside his 12-year-old son Charlie in December, finishing second behind John Daly and his offspring, John Daly II. Although he needed a golf buggy to travel between holes, Tiger was still box office: the event pulled its biggest audience in 20 years and saw viewership increase by more than 50 per cent year on year.
It’s not clear yet whether Woods will deem himself fit enough to tee off next week but Rory McIlroy, who knows all about final-day Masters drama himself, spoke for the sport when he said yesterday: “I think for golf and the Masters tournament and everyone, to have Tiger there would be phenomenal. It’s great to see him back and just considering playing next week is a great thing.”