Sure, there are a bunch of big names on tour, but none are proven superstars just yet.
The latest golf industry doom and gloom from the pundits says that golf viewership is literally dying, and viewership directly correlates to future players and rounds played. In 2014, about 63 percent of golf’s TV viewers were over the age of 55, and just 12 percent were younger than 35, according to Neilson.
I’d argue that golf viewership has always been skewed this way. I never watched golf in high school or college. Not one Masters or U.S. Open, but I started watching more as I became a recreational player. Additionally, these Neilson metrics don’t account for streaming feeds on mobile devices. Viewers with young families might not be parked in front of the television for a four-hour final round, but they are still catching some of the action on their phones.
But it is true that overall golf viewership is down, way down, with a few notable exceptions. The mighty Masters saw its final-round viewership drop 11 percent compared to last year and 21 percent compared to 2015. It was the tournament’s worst TV ratings since 2004, and it wasn’t alone.
Fox Sports said its U.S. Open overnight viewership of the final round was worst viewing in at least 29 years, and its live broadcast was down 8 percent compared to last year. The PGA Championship’s live final round slipped almost 4 percent compared to last year and was the least-viewed PGA since 2008.
So on the surface, it looks as though those who want to tell a story about golf’s demise have plenty of fodder. But if you look at each tournament and its timing more comprehensively, I think you can tell a much different story.
First, this year’s Masters was enjoyed during one of the earliest and warmest springs in recent memory. One of the biggest stories was how the azaleas, dogwoods and magnolias would be expired by tourney time. That means that golf season in the North started early this year, as I’m sure will be evidence by the overall rounds played and higher revenues clubs and courses will be reporting in 2017. The Masters signifies the beginning of the golf season for many of us in the North, and nothing makes me want to play more than seeing that beautiful golf course on television. I went golfing on Masters Sunday, and my guess is that a lot of other people did, too.
Weather aside, there is a pervasive social reality that our attention is more fragmented than any time in history. The PGA Championship fell victim to an unfolding story in Charlottesville, Virginia, where protests turned violent and bolstered ratings for the major cable news networks 25 percent compared to the same time the previous year. The incessant, instant gratification of knowing what’s new in the world and in the lives of our friends on social media might be taking viewers away from traditional strongholds, but it doesn’t necessarily demonstrate the demise of golf.
Those of us who follow golf have had Brooks Koepka on our short list of major contenders for a couple years now, but he wasn’t exactly a household name until his performance at Erin Hills. With golf’s most popular stars well down the leaderboard, the final round of the U.S. Open just wasn’t the must-see that all but the die-hard golf fans were looking for.
Stars matter. Conversely, Jordan Spieth’s dramatic final round and Open Championship victory was the most-watched Open since the 2009 playoff with Steward Cink and 59-year-old Tom Watson. Countless others tuned into Spieth’s social media channels in the succeeding days to watch the Claret Jug used as a vessel of celebration with his friends and family. His success, and the success of other big names on Tour, dictate the plight of golf’s popularity.
People say there will never be another figure who can dominate the Tour like Tiger Woods, that they are all superstars who are too closely matched. I hope those people are right, and I hope these guys start playing that way. What golf really needs now to grow the game is the passion, consistency and excitement of a handful of players to challenge each other each week. You’ll know when it happens because you’ll be tuning in to watch for yourself.