Masters Weekend may be golf’s biggest moment in a decade

WASHINGTON — Last year’s Masters was a thriller. Sergio Garcia finally broke through on the game’s biggest stage, earning a captivating win … that drew the lowest television ratings in 13 years.

Golf has had its recent public struggles. On the retail side, Goldsmith, the largest golf retailer worldwide, declared bankruptcy in 2016. Equipment company Ben Hogan followed suit last year and course owner and operator Integrity Golf closed up shop. But not everything is so dire these days.

There have been encouraging signs around the periphery. Callaway’s sales jumped about 20 percent from 2016, up over $1 billion last year. And in early 2017, wins by popular players young and old like Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickleson have built some momentum as the sport heads back to August, Georgia, this weekend.

“I think the biggest piece that has been lost in all of the discussion over the last several years is that the core of golf has remained very solid,” Steve Mona, CEO of World Golf Foundation, told WTOP.

About 20 million of the 24 million golfers in America are committed to the game as a lifestyle. Thus, Mona says the industry’s swings may sometimes appear more dramatic than they actually are, based on more temporary trends.

“The cycle of replacing equipment has lengthened,” he explained. “But because of the improvements in the marketplace, that cycle has sped up.”

In layman’s terms — over the past few years, people have replaced their clubs less often, but recent technological developments have corrected that curve a bit. But if anything has been made crystal clear these past few weeks, it’s that nothing moves the needle as much, to this day, as Tiger Woods, and it’s been fascinating to watch that spark ignited once again.

Now 42, his career seemingly permanently derailed by injury, Woods has re-emerged as a potential weekly contender. He has notched three straight Top 12 finishes coming into this week, including a T2 and T5 in his last two events. And with Woods’ resurgence has come the television ratings.

With Woods in contention three weeks ago, the Valspar Championship ratings were up 190 percent, the highest-rated non-major tournament in five years. The final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, up against the NCAA Tournament, was up 136 percent over the year prior. Just like Woods himself, the Tiger effect is very much back.

“It’s very dependent on the success and the star power at the top of the PGA Tour,” said Mona.

Given all that, it’s hard to overstate how important this Masters weekend is for the sport of golf.

“All the ingredients are in place this week … if (Woods) wins, it’s going to be epic.”

Woods hasn’t won The Masters since 2005, his third green jacket in a five-year stint and fourth overall. But he has seven Top 6 finishes since then, the most recent coming in his last competitive year on tour, 2013. And if past weeks are any indication, more eyes will be on Tiger and the rest of the game on Thursday than in a number of years.

“What Tiger does, really better than anyone else, is he creates interest in the game among the casual golf fan,” said Mona. “That interest he creates can actually be converted into trying the game.”

Those casual fans who may not have tuned in since Tiger’s last period of dominance may well have missed the rise of the next generation, from Jason Day and Dustin Johnson to Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, there’s a more compelling set of challengers with the chance to capture some of that attention as well. No matter how the final leader board shakes out, that offers the chance to potentially inspire that next generation of players.

There are four main junior golf initiatives — First Tee, the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship (which just happened and is now signing up for next year), LPGA and USGA girls, and the PGA Junior League, golf’s Little League equivalent. Most of those have come along in what increasingly looked like the post-Tiger era; now they’ll have the benefit of the Tiger bump as well.

Those programs are in place, waiting, hoping. If Augusta delivers, this could be the biggest weekend golf has had in quite some time.

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