Just the facts, ma’am” – Sgt. Joe Friday

The golf world is all aflutter with the impending return of Tiger Woods and that’s a good thing.

Heaven knows golf needs all the interest and enthusiasm it can get if only to stimulate more participation, more rounds, more equipment sales…well, you get the idea.

What is not needed is another big star complaining how far the ball goes and Woods during a recent podcast joined Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Hale Irwin among others saying golf is in trouble.

Quoting Woods, “We need to do something with the golf ball. I think it’s going too far because we’re having to build golf course[s], if they want to have a championship venue, they’ve got to be 7,400 to 7,800 yards long.”

As if this weren’t indictment enough he continued, “And if the game keeps progressing the way it is with technology, I think the 8,000-yard golf course is not too far away. And that’s pretty scary because we don’t have enough property to start designing these type of golf courses and it just makes it so much more complicated.”

Really? Complicated for who? Not fans nor ordinary golfers who hit 200-yard tee shots. Not when courses are closing left and right and the number of players continues to shrink.

The reason comments from Woods or Nicklaus or Player are a concern is they are among the most respected men in the game and their opinions may eventually push the USGA into “rolling back” ball performance. Rather than being a solution such a retrenchment would be a disaster for equipment makers, recreational players and golf fans.

Some say that ball performance is not a problem and isn’t supported by facts so let’s take a look.

There’s no arguing professionals and other elite players are hitting the ball farther, much farther, and as a result the courses they play have been made longer. That makes sense and similar solutions to mitigate equipment advances have been going on for at least 150 years. Scoring however has not benefited from all this added distance. In 2017 PGA Tour scoring leader Jordan Spieth averaged 68.846 strokes and in 1980 Lee Trevino led all players with 69.73, less than 0.9 stroke improvement in 37 years.

Not exactly a case for manning the barricades to repel the bad guys. Statisticians call that level of difference “noise.”

So if scoring doesn’t support these concerns does an analysis of driving distance?

In 1968 with persimmon heads, 150 gram steel shafts and balata-covered wound balls the average driving distance on Tour was 264 yards. By 1995 it was just about the same–262.7 yards. That year Callaway Golf introduced the “huge” 265cc lightweight titanium head Great Big Bertha driver and longer, lighter graphite shafts soon followed. Predictably because drivers now weighed less swing speeds went up and by 2003 average distance was 285.9 yards—a jump of 23 yards in just eight years.

At the same time the ball also was being improved and the added distance from the new low spinning, solid core balls was readily apparent. In 1996 the 3-layer urethane cover Top Flite Strata came out but the real game-changer was Titleist’s introduction of the Pro V1 in October 2000. Within weeks it became the most played ball on Tour and quickly took over the top spot in retail sales.

From 2003 through 2017 average driving distance increased to 292.5 yards equating to about 17 inches per year in part due to development of even lighter shafts and clubfaces with higher rebound across a larger area. However, a major portion of the gain can be accounted for by course agronomy allowing drier, more closely mown fairways so the ball to rolls much farther. Additionally players are taller and stronger and have intensive physical training regimens. During the same time a huge leap forward in instruction took place as coaches used launch monitors to refine players’ swings to an extent never before possible.

The real proof though is tee ball distance is a lousy predictor of success on the PGA Tour and as might be imagined the best correlation to money won is average score. Driving distance and driving accuracy have the lowest correlation.

The conclusion is plain. Since 1964 average driving distance is 30 yards greater but after 2003 distance enhancing design improvements have been incremental…not revolutionary. Nothing goes up forever.

Finally, though Woods didn’t mention it, there’s another other oft voiced complaint. Something like, “fine old courses have been made obsolete and championships can’t be held there because they don’t have the acreage to add yardage.” Not only has that not true since many of the “fine old courses” have already been lengthened but a lot of them can’t hold professional events for reasons other than the length of the holes. There may be no room for 50,000 fans to park or for the corporate hospitality tents which are a primary source of tournament revenue or perhaps the driving range is not big enough to accommodate more than a fraction of the field.

These facts are rarely mentioned by those decrying golf ball distance gains and have nothing to do with the fact Rory McIlroy and 42 others averaged over 300 yards last season.

Golf does has problems but the distance elite players are hitting the ball is not one of them. Fans want to see the long ball from Rory, Dustin and Bubba and aren’t interested seeing their 120 mph swing send the ball the same distance it went in 1995.

The whole idea of rollback is ridiculous. It’s hard to comprehend how any lessening of ball or driver performance will help sell more tournament tickets, sponsor advertising, merchandise or equipment. The PGA Tour obviously has figured that out and hasn’t joined in with the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

It also true recreational players are not complaining and it can be argued anything making the game more fun and even a little easier benefits participation. Those who make the assumption length equates to difficulty are also making a mistake. Course design and setup for professional tournaments requires intelligence, creativity and imagination without gimmicks. Maybe something simple such as cutting the rough and fairways higher or installing bunkers on either side of a landing area are possibilities.

Some are concerned about land and water usage which is certainly a legitimate question, not one resulting from how far the ball is being hit, but of the proper use of finite resources. Course architects and maintenance experts are already finding solutions such as drought resistant grasses, course topography and hole routing. What is needed most of all is a change in the mindset of developers who specify an over-the-top expensive “championship” course to aid residential real estate sells or for a resort to put heads in beds.

Here are a couple of simple requests for Tiger. Please come back to the Tour healthy and competitive. Secondly, because of your prominence people listen to your opinion please check out the facts and perhaps your opinion will reflect a new view point…one that is less harmful to golfers and the golf industry.

Come Back Tiger


For a lot of reasons besides the thrill of watching him play this madding game we need a healthy Tiger Woods back on Tour.

He draws attention regardless of his score. TV ratings take a big bump whenever he tees it up not to mention how much they increase when he is in contention. Companies get more “eyeballs” on their advertisements resulting in more sales and more return on their investment. In the case of the golf equipment OEMs such as TaylorMade Golf and Bridgestone Golf who pay Woods to endorse their products that can be significant.

Then, let’s not forget tournament ticket sales, merchandise sales, refreshments and pro-am fees. The more money raised the more can go to charity. Plus, though his turning professional in 1996 may not have resulted in a permanent increase in the number of golfers, there’s no denying a healthy Tiger attracts attention and bolsters the sport’s image which doesn’t hurt participation.

Whether Woods is the greatest player of all time or not, the truth is he still brings an interest and excitement to any event he enters. Insiders would say, “He moves the needle.” Is his career over? Who knows and it seems that even he doesn’t know.

Maligned, sometimes unfairly, and praised, sometimes undeservedly, but whatever the circumstances he has been the face of professional golf and for the past two decades has been the most talked about and written about golfer on Tour.

Dealing with just the facts, rather than what sometimes passes for news and is actually opinion, Woods is a forty-something athlete who has a bad back and there’s always a big question mark with that type of injury. Three surgeries put him on the sidelines beginning in August 2015. The layoff ended with his ballyhooed return in early December 2016 at a 17-player charity exhibition and no cut. He finished 15th.

Next in late January this year he teed it up at Torrey Pines Golf Club less than an hour from where he grew up. His rounds of 76 and 72 missed the cut by four strokes. Then he flew commercially to Dubai (Really? It’s hard to believe he would go commercial) where, after smoothing it around for a 77, Woods was hit by back spasms forcing his withdrawal.

Though had planned to, he did not play at Riviera (his charity is a primary beneficiary) nor the Honda near his home in South Florida revealing on TigerWoods.com his doctors had ordered no activity to let his “back calm down.”

And those are the facts. With the Masters five weeks away and his often voiced determination to win more major championships it will be interesting to see if he is able to play. Or even if his back is OK Woods may feel his game isn’t ready for prime time, that he can’t be competitive and decide against going to Augusta.

It’s important to not get carried away with speculation, guessing and wishful thinking. Woods doesn’t need the money but does, from all reports, still want to win more majors, i.e., continue chasing Jack Nicklaus’ record.

Besides, there’s one other salient fact about the former world number one who held that spot for a total of over 13 years. In less than nine years Woods will be eligible for the Champions Tour.

Woods Not Out of the Woods


woods_2015_wyndhamThe last time Tiger Woods played a competitive event was the 2015 Wyndham Championship 14 months ago. He finished in a tie for 10th place. His last win was two years and two months ago at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational. His last major victory was the 2008 U.S. Open. He will be 41-years old in December.

But when he announced his plans to play in the Tour’s Safeway Open this week fans were excited and the media seemed to talk about nothing else.

Everyone asked the same question. Could he recapture the magical game that resulted in 79 Tour victories with 14 majors?

Those not able to be at Silverado Resort’s North Course were making plans to watch the first two rounds on the Golf Channel when the dream pairing for his comeback was to be with longtime rival Phil Mickelson. Crowds on the course would have been multiple layers deep on every hole since, according to a report on GolfChannel.com, ticket sales for the Napa Valley event had doubled compared to last year.

However, fans, tournament sponsors and advertisers had to face the fact of Woods’ withdrawal on Monday when he posted a statement on TigerWoods.com saying his body was fine but his game wasn’t ready to compete against the best in the world…yet.

Speculation raged. Woods wasn’t pleased with his long game, unsure of his short game, struggling with his putter, etc. But of course that’s all it was, speculation. It’s intriguing to ask though if during his recent intensive preparation chips and pitches were exhibiting the chunks and blades of late 2014 and part of 2015.

In any event, regardless of the uninformed guessing one thing is for sure the 15th club he always had carried would no longer be there.

That club was intimidation, the same as Jack Nicklaus carried in his prime. It has been said of Nicklaus, “He knew he was going to beat you. You knew he was going to beat you and he knew that you knew he was going to beat you.”

Woods brought that same confident aura to the first tee in every tournament and though he might not win competitors always wanted to know “What’s Tiger doing?”

Often it meant he had won the contest of wills before a ball was struck.

So whenever he manages to bring his surgically repaired body to the course pursuing resurrection, rejuvenation, Sam Snead’s record 82 Tour wins and Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major championships it won’t be the same.

There’s no doubt the young players at the top of the game today are not “afraid” of the Tiger.

All we can hope is this isn’t the end and he will be back…sometime.

Tiger’s In – Nike’s Out

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He hasn’t put his game on display for over a year and his last PGA Tour win was in August of 2013 but the soon to be 41-year old has created lots of attention by saying he will play in a charity event October 10-11 followed by the Safeway Open October 13-16.

And the company whose clubs he has played since 2002 is getting out, out of the club, bag and ball business to concentrate on shoes and apparel.

Tiger Woods and Nike, inseparable in the minds of many, have had an amazing run together. Woods currently has 79 Tour wins with 14 majors (not all using Nike equipment) ranking second all-time in both categories. Nike though, was never able to come up with a category-defining club in spite of having on the payroll Tom Stites, one of the most respected club designers in the business. What they did however, with Woods under the most lucrative contract in golf, was become the number one golf apparel brand.

It’s no wonder, with the equipment business having at best a minimal-growth future, the decision to leave that arena was made.

Woods and other staff members, most notably Rory McIlroy and Michelle Wie, will continue to wear Nike Swoosh apparel so they will still have a huge presence in the minds of consumers. Golfers just won’t be able to purchase Nike clubs.

The effect the Nike withdrawal from selling equipment is uncertain but a good estimate is it probably won’t be very large. The golf division never had more than $800 million (last year $706 million) in sales but since the breakdown between hard goods and soft goods was not reported, actual club sales are unknown. They never approached a 10% market share in hard goods.

Some in the media are saying Nike’s problems are because Woods hasn’t been playing and that’s incorrect. Nike didn’t have market leadership or even contend for leadership when Woods was at his best, winning multiple times in a season. His presence on Tour alone never could generate the amount of business Nike wanted to dominant the golf hard goods sector but did help push soft goods to the number one spot.

Golf for Nike was a tiny part of their overall business, less than two percent, and several factors virtually preordained their decision. The small market share plus an industry where product lifecycles are measured often in months with relatively large development costs meant staying just didn’t make sense. It was obvious golf equipment had to go.

With Nike paying more attention to golf performance and lifestyle soft goods, the biggest impact could be seen by competing shoe and apparel brands Acushnet’s FootJoy, adidas and Under Armour. Adidas is also leaving equipment and selling its golf brands TaylorMade Golf and Adams. The other major player Acushnet, owner of Titleist, is in the process of going public which typically can create uncertainly in corporate decision making.

This could mean Callaway picks up the major portion of Nike club sales however large it was and undeniably Callaway has been on an upwards trend since Chip Brewer took over as CEO. Privately-owned Ping and others potentially could see a bump in sales as well.

With all that in mind, which clubs will Woods switch to now that he plans to compete and again chase Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors?

Well, it’s not clear he will switch at all and for sure not right away though Woods has said companies are sending lots of clubs to try out. He hasn’t played a Tour event since August 2015 and it’s unlikely he will make a club change soon. Additionally any equipment company paying the amount of money Woods can demand will want their logo prominently display on his cap and shirt so there’s an immediate conflict with his Nike apparel contract. Nike is worth several millions each year to Woods and the contract doesn’t renew until the end of 2018 so he’s not going to put it in jeopardy.

One thing is for sure, fan interest will continue as will the speculation about Woods as he tries to get back to being top of the Tour.

One Less Slice to the Pie

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The golf equipment industry is evaluating the potential effects of Nike Golf announcing Aug. 3 it would getting out of the club, ball and bag business to concentrate on its golf apparel lines including ones under the Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Michelle Wie brand names. Club manufacturers have spent the last several years trying to find ways to increase sales and now the slice of the pie that belonged to Nike is up for grabs.

The question is what the remaining club companies will do to take over Nike’s share of the market and if the strategy involves reduction in the prices of clubs to attract sales the golf consumer could benefit.

Nike is the smallest of the big four by a significant margin with sales of $706 million this past fiscal year trailing Callaway Golf ($844 million sales in 2015), TaylorMade-adidas Golf ($989 million) and Acushnet ($1.5 billion).

However the scrum for the sales that had been going to Nike will take place in a muddy field.

There is uncertainty surrounding the two largest companies. Acushnet, the parent of Titleist and FootJoy, has registered with the Security and Exchange Commission to make an offering of stock to the public. Adidas has put its TaylorMade Golf division with the Adams Golf and Ashworth brands up for sale though details of any potential deal are unknown.

Smaller companies are also making moves that add to the list of possible outcomes such as Srixon’s Cleveland brand changing focus to wedges and putters while Srixon and their upscale XXIO lines market woods and irons. Tour Edge Golf has increased efforts to further penetrate the market for irons with well received new models.

Undecided for now is the fate of Tour players who endorse the Swoosh clubs and the list starts with Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Michelle Wie but also includes veteran Paul Casey and rising stars Tony Finau and Bruce Koepka. Woods has said he is actively looking for a new relationship with a club company with the mostly likely candidate could be Acushnet-Titleist since longtime rival Phil Mickelson is the chief spokesman for Callaway and the question marks surrounding the sale of TaylorMade.

Jordan Spieth endorses Titleist clubs and golf balls but is contracted with Under Armour for apparel.

Additionally, money paid to endorse a given club line has been put under close scrutiny by every manufacturer as profits have shrunk. The huge sums Nike has paid in the past for marquee stars are most likely not part of the equation. It has been reported Woods earns $50 million annually from Upper Deck, Rolex and Nike endorsements even though he has not played a single event in the past year. Woods’ Nike deal includes both equipment and apparel.

Three years ago McIlroy signed a 10-year deal for between $200 and $250 million according to published stories including apparel as well as equipment.

Where Have You Gone Tiger Woods?

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Let’s be realistic. The game of golf and the PGA Tour need Tiger Woods. Even with the travails of his private life reported on and viewed on every television and computer screen, we still need him.

Call it charisma, cache or whatever but the excitement Woods generates moves the needle unlike anyone in our sport since the heady days of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Sure today’s young guns (described by somebody as a “golf’s boy band”) draw attention but Woods was and is a winner and a unparalleled cultural phenomenon. Just ask Phil Mickelson who has a record matched by few with the ninth most wins all-time but he’s 9 majors and 37 wins behind Tiger. And in case you don’t think this separates Tiger and Lefty from the rest of the pack, the next highest winning total by players under the age of 50 is Ernie Els with 19.

The expectations of the so-called “Tiger Bubble,” where millions of new participants would take of the game because Woods made golf “cool,” didn’t result in a large number of committed players. For all the optimism of how a non-Caucasian star would “change the face of golf,” it didn’t happen.

Golf today reflects our society, its strengths and weakness and on the whole is a positive for the roughly 25 million who play, at least occasionally. Of that number an estimated 20 million tee it up several times per year making golf a significant part of their lives.

Having said that, we know the number of rounds of golf played is the primary determinant for course revenues, equipment sales, travel and all the other parts of the industry.

A healthy, competing Woods draws attention like no other athlete and that encourages players to play more and possibly even attracts new participants. There probably is no other single event that would trigger as much interest in the game as his return and golf industry companies would have to capitalize on it.

It could be a big deal. Say if somehow a Tiger return leveraged by smart course management (not simply price cuts but creating real value for customers) could translate into rounds played going up a modest ten percent. That’s about 40 million rounds and a simple multiplication assuming a $40 average greens fee and the result is $1.6 billion which doesn’t include the sales of equipment and apparel, travel, food and beverage…Well, you get the idea.

The industry needs a catalyst such as a healthy Tiger Woods.

From a fan’s perspective how great would it be to have Tiger tee it up this week at Oakmont against Day and Spieth and McIlroy and Scott and the other younger players. Or as long as we are dreaming.

Can you image the TV ratings if Lefty and Tiger were tied going in to the final round, battling it out on Father’s Day? The companies funding the telecast with their advertising would have a bonanza of viewership for their products and services.

Yes, golf needs Tiger and let’s hope all the speculation of “if he will return” becomes meaningless when he does.

Who Says TV Golf Needs Tiger?

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Part of the lament about golf on television is, without Tiger Woods on the tube viewership is a way down and advertisers aren’t getting the exposure they are paying for.

Well, it’s anecdotal of course, but according to a statement from the Golf Channel “THE PLAYERS Sunday overnight rating on NBC up 60 percent over 2014” and the cause obviously was the edge-of-the-chair excitement of the three man playoff. Ricky Fowler won the “almost a major” PLAYERS by eliminating Sergio Garcia after the three hole playoff and then Kevin Kisner in sudden death on the island green 17th at TPC Sawgrass.

It was the third most watched Sunday of the past year topped only by last month’s blowout at the Masters by Jordan Spieth and the battle between Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson at the PGA Championship in August with world number one McIlroy winning.

PrintComparing previous years’ of THE PLAYERS this past Sunday also came in third after Tiger Woods’ win in 2013 and Henrik Stenson’s win in 2009.

More data will be coming to expand on the how much good golf from appealing players is just what viewers crave.

Perhaps as heartening as any fact concerning how many of us were watching the thrilling finish is victory is a solid validation of Fowler. He is not the most overrated player on Tour as supposedly was the case after an anonymous poll of fellow pros conducted by Sports Illustrated.

Can anyone say nattering nabobs of negativity?

Oh, and Tiger? He made the cut on the number and ended up T69 so the man that “moves the needle” like no other in our game was finished before the cameras went

 

Tiger Redux

Tiger_Nike_2014_3_400x300To a greater or lesser degree, we all kid ourselves. We often can’t see the reality of a situation. Instead we believe a mixture of what is and what we would like it be as the truth. We see it all the while in golf—on and off the course. Who of us hasn’t tried an impossible shot from an impossible lie in an impossible position?

Take a situation burned into my memory, the qualifying tournament for a spot in the field at the US Senior Open…after a pulled tee shot into the scrub under a stand of Spanish moss-draped oaks the ball came to nestled amongst fallen oak leaves leaving almost no shot. Being unable to see that simple piece of reality when the smart shot was a punch back to the fairway, I casually took a 2-iron out and attempted a low 200-yard hook around and under the closest oak. The ball was hit solidly and just as solidly hit the oak trunk before zinging its way out of bounds.

Ok I thought what rotten luck, as I took a drop as proscribed by the Rules of Golf, retained the 2-iron and again hit the ball a mile over the boundary fence thanks to contact with the same tree trunk not a foot from the previous impact.

Needless to say my attempt at qualifying went over the fence with the second ball…Tin Cup has nothing on me.

So how does this apply to the most recent situation Tiger Woods has to deal with…deactivating glutes?

As soon as he cited that as the reason for withdrawing from the Farmers Insurance Open last week it had all the characteristics of an excuse…not a reason, not reality. And unfortunately it exhibited that same personality trait he has so often shown us in the past. He was kidding himself about what had really gone on.

Or put another way if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, chances are it’s a duck.

There’s no doubt in my mind his back “tightened up” after the weather delay and being a fellow sufferer I sympathize but what tipped me over into the excuse-not-reason camp was the already sorry state of Woods’ game plus the fact as far as I know not a single other player opted out of the tournament after going through similar delays.

Woods doesn’t need another swing coach he needs to find within himself the solution to his sometimes seemingly apathetic and certainly often pathetic play not looking outside blaming others nor circumstances nor his gluteus maximus.

The game needs Tiger Woods. Let’s hope he can get his game back and return to the Tour but not as he seems have been doing all his life—with an ignorance of reality accompanied with an arrogance that now days is certainly unfounded.

Images courtesy Nike Golf