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Point Counterpoint

What Era is Golf ’s Golden Age in America?

The Tiger Era D

oes a Golden Age have to be filmed in sepia tone or double-time black and white? Can there be sound? Is it lim- ited to plaids and pastels? Or can it set ratings records in high definition, and turn a golfer into the most popular, marketable and richest athlete in the world? Can it usher in the creation of an all-golf net- work, and recruit athletes from basketball, baseball, football and soccer to play its sport instead? Can it make golf cool? With all due respect,

Golf ’s Golden Age does not belong to the Golden Bear. The Golden Age is fitted with a red polo, its logo a Nike swoosh. The Golden Age is an ongoing phenomenon, one we will share with anyone who will listen for generations to come, no matter how many more majors Tiger Woods does or doesn’t win. Yes, the scoreboard says Jack

Nicklaus had 18 majors, and maybe more impressively 19 seconds—and it should not be understated that those runner- ups would crush mere mortals. And yes, Nicklaus’ competi-

tion was more top-heavy—think SEC football top-heavy —than any other era, with Gary Player winning nine majors, Tom Wat- son eight, Arnold Palmer seven, and Lee Trevino six. Phil Mickelson (four), Ernie

Els (four), Padraig Harrington (three) and Vijay Singh (three) have won as many majors combined as Tiger (14)—often a knock on the star power of today’s game. The ratings and attendance figures with/without Tiger reflect this, too. But they also reflect how

16 / NCGA.ORG / SPRING 2013

golf morphs into a raging party when Tiger is in contention, that “You da man!” has never been screamed at a higher rate, that SportsCenter meatheads will debate whether it’s possible to go an entire season undefeated. Yep, these are the expecta-

tions Tiger has created. But that’s what you get when you bust through golf ’s color barrier at the Masters green jacket ceremony with a record 12-shot win at 21, smash the field at the U.S. Open by 15 strokes three years after that, and collect the Tiger Slam at 25. Win percentage is now a

golf stat, thanks to Tiger. It never was for any other golfer. But we now know that Tiger wins more than 26% of the tournaments he enters. Nicklaus was at just over 12%. Mickelson has the best active non-Tiger numbers at 9%. And the scary thing is, we’ll

never know how dominant Tiger could have been. Yes, there’s the injury- induced swing changes and his carefully crafted public image crumbling like a rickety tower from Angry Birds. But there’s also Tiger-

proofing. Golf went Gumby. It

strapped classic golf courses into medieval torture racks and stretched every last yard out of them, distorted reconfiguration and all. Amid the hysteria of a

21-year-old kid rendering Augusta National obsolete in 1997, the transcendent play we had all witnessed was lost. Sure, when Nicklaus bludgeoned the competition with his length to the tune of six green jackets, the

golf world gawked and marveled. But when Tiger unleashed his video game-inspiring drives on Augusta and routinely reached its par 5s in two with wedges and 9-irons. . .well, Bobby Jones surely must have been rolling over in his grave. Mind you, this was before

the Pro V1, back when there were still persimmon woods floating around on Tour. John Daly led the PGA Tour in driving distance in 1996 with an average of 289 yards, just three yards longer than Davis Love III’s 286 a decade earlier. Then Tiger cruised up

Magnolia Lane, averaging 323.3 yards off the tee at Augusta, nearly 25 yards longer than his next closest competitor. This 155-pound kid with a 30-inch waist was toying with grown men, physically dominating them before technology could begin to bridge the gap. Augusta and the rest of

its brethren responded to this apparent embarrassment by embarking on a Cold War- like arms race, building new Tiger tees—it’s part of our golf vernacular now—wherever they could dream them up. Augusta added yardage to half its holes in the next five years, even though Mickelson acknowledged through a back- handed compliment that Tiger was using “inferior equipment.” By 2006, Augusta was more than 500 yards longer. Tiger has won four green

jackets, but none since 2005. Tiger-proofing successful. Ever wonder how many

majors Nicklaus would have won if courses were openly Bear-trapped?

But even as courses line

up against Tiger like opposing defenses digging in at the line of scrimmage, he still runs the sport the same way Michael Jordan ruled basketball in the ’90s. Tiger dominates the televi- sion coverage, the interest, and, oh yeah, the record books. He also inspires. There are Tiger toddlers

who have grown into full- fledged phenoms. There was a 7-year-old boy in Northern Ireland when Tiger obliterated the Masters field in 1997. He was soon spotted on the golf course in an oversized Nike windbreaker. As a 22-year-old, he won the 2011 U.S. Open, breaking Tiger’s scoring record in the process. Rory McIlroy owns two majors and rose to No. 1 in the world rankings. Whether McIlroy becomes

the challenger Watson was to Nicklaus is another Point- Counterpoint. That rival might be another kid yet to arrive, who grew up with a fist-pumping Tiger poster on his wall. But make no mistake—

that kid will have grown up watching the Golden Age of Golf, not to mention the Bullion Age of Golf.

KEVIN MERFELD is Communications Manager for the NCGA.

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