What Tiger Woods Hasn't Done for Golf

By Henry D. Fetter

Timothy A. Clary/AFP-Getty

Tiger Woods, as all the world—whether golf fans or not—knows, is back. What the future holds for his playing success, reputation, or marketability is up in the air as he tees off in this year's Masters. But it is easy enough to see that, whatever the hype-fueled expectations that greeted his professional debut in the summer of 1996, he has not changed the world that is this week so intently following his return to the links. What may not be as easy to see is that he has not even changed the wider world of golf.

True, he has led the professional golf tour to record levels of corporate sponsorships, television audiences, and prize money. He has made a lot of his competitors rich beyond what would have been possible without him. But to get a handle on the true impact he has had on the golf world, the place to look is not a television ratings sheet or the PGA money list or even the tabloids, but is instead the Statistical Abstract of the United States, published annually by the Census Bureau of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

"Tiger Woods wants to be an ambassador of change in golf,'' a Nike spokesman announced when Woods turned professional, multi-million dollar Nike endorsement contract in hand. The dry-as-dust tables of the Statistical Abstract reveal whether that grand proclamation has played out in practice.

How does golf rank as a participatory sport now compared to when Tiger joined the professional ranks? In 1995 (BT—Before Tiger) the Statistical Abstract ranked golf as the 11th most popular sports activity. In 2006 (AT—After Tiger) golf had dropped to 15th on that list. Are more people playing golf AT than in BT? In 1995, the Abstract recorded the total number of golfers as 23,959,000; in 2006, 24,428,000 were counted, an increase of only about 2 percent. Did Tiger lend the sport's traditionally stodgy middle-aged corporate image a more youthful appeal? BT there were more golfers under the age of 35 than AT and more under the age of 55 as well. Rather than inspiring a youth movement, the most significant numerical gain in 2006 over 1995 was in the 55 to 64 age group.

Is the sport now more democratic or inclusive than it was BT? If anything the opposite is true. In 2006 well over half of adult golfers enjoyed a household income of over $75,000; in 1995 about one third of adult golfers could be found among those with a comparable income adjusted income. Has there been an upward spike in the sales of golfing gear? The volume of golf shoe sales BT was $225 million. AT it was $232 million (not adjusted for inflation). Sales of golf clubs and equipment was $3.5 billion BT and $3.6 billion AT (again not adjusted for inflation).

Minority, including African-American, golfing participation is not recorded in the Statistical Abstract, but evidence of any dramatic increase in the number of African-American golfers is thin despite Tiger's role model—until recently that is—status. This is certainly true of the PGA Tour itself, where there are no African-American players aside from Woods. (Or Cabliniasian—Caucasian-black-Indian-Asian—as Woods once described himself, either).

Among the ranks of ordinary duffers, statistics are all over the place: one can variously read that there were 676,000 black golfers in 1994, but that their ranks had doubled to 800,000 by 2004 since 1997; or that an estimated 2.2 million black golfers in 2009 was double the number in 1997. The best conclusion is that no one really knows. About another "under-represented" group, whose participation rate is recorded in the Statistical Abstract, the picture is clearer. Just under six percent of golfers were women both BT and AT.

"Look out World," was the challenge of the in-your-face Nike ads when Tiger joined the PGA tour after winning the U.S. amateur title for the third time in 1996. Judging by the statistical record, the world may have looked, but it then moved on. It is certainly looking again now, but there is no reason to think Tiger will transform the sport in the future any more than he did in the past.

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