LA JOLLA -- Professional golf’s television empire stretches from New York to you-name-it, but this week, it’s all the way to Torrey Pines. That’s where CBS begins its 20-event coverage of the PGA Tour this year at the Buick Invitational, where Tiger Woods plays his first tournament of the year.
What a coincidence, right?
If ever there is a sport critically dependent on a marquee player, it is the PGA Tour and its need for Woods. He is the dominant figure in golf, his reputation built on his uncanny success in winning tournaments. But his long shadow extends far beyond the golf course.
His presence at a tournament ensures that event’s success, and some believe his absence causes immeasurable damage.
It all starts with Tiger and television. The ratings tell a story that begins and ends with Woods. According to research that traced Woods’ effect on television ratings in 2007, tournaments in which he finished in the top five had a 171% increase in CBS’ ratings over those in which he did not play or wasn’t in contention.
The ratings were 4.6 compared with 1.7.
In similar tournaments on NBC, the ratings increase was 59%, or 3.5 compared with 2.2.
The two-network average showed an increase of 111%, or 4.0 compared with 1.9.
Rob Correa, senior vice president of programming for CBS Sports, said Woods’ influence on ratings is at least equal to any of the greatest figures in sports.
“He clearly moves the needle,” Correa said. “The Tiger Factor hasn’t wavered at all. There’s only been a handful who have had an impact like him on their own sports, like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan. Those are the only guys.”
Correa said no one other than Woods moves the needle on golf’s television ratings.
“There’s not even a second place,” he said.
Mike Milthorpe, the tournament director of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, has felt the sting of the other side of the Tiger Factor. Woods has never played the Hope, although Milthorpe would like to see him show up sometime in the desert.
“Who wouldn’t?” Milthorpe said. “But we don’t know any different because he’s never played here.”
Other players don’t bump up the ratings. The final-round rating at the Hope on the Golf Channel won’t be known until today, but the rating for the Hope’s last round in 2007 on the Golf Channel was .9.
The CA Championship at Doral has had Woods in the field five times, so tournament director Eddie Carbone considers himself fortunate.
“Tiger’s presence can make or break you,” he said. “Something happens when Tiger is there. It would be safe to say I’m thrilled to say he plays here.”
The final round of the last year’s tournament, won by Woods, had a 2.9 rating on NBC.
Ty Votaw, the PGA Tour’s executive vice president of communications and international affairs, said that Woods does assume a preeminent place, but that golf’s ratings remain strong regardless of Woods’ participation.
“Of course he’s important,” Votaw said. “It’s a function of living in a time and place where Tiger Woods exists. And that’s something that makes us very happy, that the No. 1 athlete in the world plays golf.”
Woods didn’t enter the Nissan Open at Riviera last year, but he has played the tournament nine times as a pro, twice as an amateur. Tournament director Tom Pulchinski counts himself lucky because the event has usually found a place on Woods’ agenda.
“Is it less of an event without him there? Well, the event is still going to go on, you still have to pay the bills, there are still dollars for charity, and we’re still going to play,” Pulchinski said. “But can it be better if Tiger’s there? Absolutely. It’s naive to say he doesn’t have a huge effect. Everybody wants him for that reason.
“But I wouldn’t say his presence could make or break an event, which is what Jack’s opinion was.”
Pulchinski was referring to Jack Vickers, who founded the International tournament and saw it fall by the wayside after 21 years. Vickers laid at least part of the blame on the PGA Tour for failing to influence Woods to play the event more often.
Woods entered the International twice, in 1998 and 1999.
When Vickers announced he was putting his tournament to rest, he said there are “haves” and “have-nots” among tour events, the ones with Woods and the ones without him. He said it was troubling.
“If something isn’t done, you’re not going to have a tour,” Vickers said after ending the International last February. “Right now, it’s a one-man show.”
Vickers said Monday that he’s not upset with Woods, but he isn’t so happy with the tour and Commissioner Tim Finchem.
“As for Tiger, business is business,” Vickers said. “He’s certainly free to choose where he wants to play. My concern was that it was time to renew a long-term contract and I felt if I was going to invest several million dollars, I wanted to know that in six or seven years, Tiger would play every other year or so.
“It’s always my prerogative if I want to continue a tournament without the best player. I don’t have any bad feelings. I just couldn’t get anyone to acknowledge my concerns at all.”
Vickers said Finchem told the pros when the tour was moving away from the International that Vickers didn’t have a sponsor. Vickers insists he did. The PGA Tour declined to comment.
Vickers said he has no axes to grind with Woods or the PGA Tour, but he said there is no question that the exact confluence of Woods, television ratings, sponsors and the tour needs to be examined closely.
Vickers said that despite its clout, the $280 million it offers in prize money, the millions it raises for charity and its rich history, the tour might actually be fragile -- depending too much on Woods.
The question is, he said, what happens if Woods isn’t around?
“I think the PGA Tour is going to have some bumps in the road. With sponsors, and getting the right field at tournaments. If Tiger isn’t there, they get lousy ratings. And the result of that? At some point, I just don’t think corporate America is going to continue to sponsor these tournaments unless they get better ratings, and better players, like the best one.”
In the meantime, the networks are firing up the cameras and pointing them at Woods.
The Golf Channel is publicizing “Two weeks of Tiger,” with him playing at Torrey Pines and Dubai. CBS began last month promoting the Masters, replaying Woods’ chip shot on the 16th hole that helped him win in 2005.
Will it work? Where will it all end? Better check the ratings.
BUICK INVITATIONAL * When: Thursday-Sunday.* Where: Torrey Pines, La Jolla.