This weekend saw the return of one of World sport’s genuine megastars.
Eldrick “Tiger” Woods, now 40 years old and the World number 897, made a comeback from injury after 466 days without playing a tournament at his own Hero World Challenge, at the Albany course in the Bahamas.
Woods’s achievements are well known. He has 79 PGA Tour Titles, second only to Sam Snead, and is third on the all-time list of winners on the European Tour. Between August 1999 and October 2010 he was the World’s top ranked player for all but a single 8 month period during which the number 1 slot changed hands between Woods and Vijay Singh.
His PGA Tour earnings alone top $110 million and he is reported to be the first sports star to earn over $1 billion in their career through earnings and sponsorship.
Perhaps his least favourite statistic is being second on the all-time Majors winning list behind the legendary Jack Nicklaus. The question now is can he win again and can he overtake Nicklaus?
In 2008, then aged 32, Woods won the last of his Major tournaments, the US Open at Torrey Pines, in California. At that time the question appeared to be when he would beat Nicklaus’s record rather than if.
2009 saw a downturn in fortune for Woods with a lack of form and a number of allegations of infidelity which led to the breakdown of his marriage. This scandal led to a 6 month layoff during which time a number of sponsors left him (for more on morality clauses see here).
A change of coach was blamed for initial drop in form before Woods fought his way back to the top of the game with 8 further tournament victories in 2012 and 2013, but significantly no Majors. Since 2014 Woods has been plagued by injury in particular a back injury which Woods himself has said meant he couldn’t move.
Significantly during this time the game has also moved on with a new crop of players leading the rankings and money lists headed by Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Henrik Stenson amongst others. This new crop of players are young enough to have been influenced themselves by Woods and taken note of his dedication to all pursuits of the game, including in particular strength and conditioning something previously overlooked by many players. Long gone is the time when Woods would dominate the driving charts with professionals now commonly averaging drives well in excess of 300 yards. Equipment has also evolved further levelling the playing field.
For all these reasons it is more difficult for the sport to be dominated by a single player than perhaps it was before with multiple winners being seen throughout the year; in particular few have won more than one Major in a year, something accomplished by a select few (including Spieth, McIlroy and Woods) in the last 10 years.
Despite this TV audiences have dwindled in Woods’s absence with the 2015 Masters having its lowest ratings since 1993. As a result one cannot underestimate Woods’s draw for spectators and fans alike.
It will take some feat for Woods to close in on Nicklaus’s 18 Majors as it will for any of the current crop of players coming through. That said it was ominous to note amongst the weekend’s stats that Woods led the tournament in birdies, with 24.
If the corresponding bogies can be eradicated perhaps a return to the top of the food chain will be on the cards for Tiger after all – which in itself must be good for the game.