— Last month, Padraig Harrington captured the 90th PGA championship at Oakland Hills Country Club – and America yawned.
During the final round, CBS' viewership dropped more than 50 percent from 2007, when Tiger Woods snagged the title. Once Saturday's round was hit by a rain delay, the network decided to replay a past PGA Championship – the one in 2000, where Woods triumphed over Bob May.
This week, Woods – recuperating from knee surgery – is out of the picture again as the United States battles Europe for the Ryder Cup in Kentucky. Interestingly enough, though the PGA Tour has suffered mightily during Woods' absence since his dramatic U.S. Open victory in June, the Ryder Cup will flourish even without him.
How so? A few factors come into play:
First, the biennial Ryder Cup is about countries, not individuals. The dozen pros on each side don't even get paid to perform. Those watching at Valhalla Golf Club at Louisville and at home on television are more captivated by the winning team rather than by any individual match.
"Given the format, in general the presence of one player – say, Tiger – can't make much difference in terms of TV audience or gallery," said Allen Sanderson, a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago who teaches a course on the economics of sports. "He's far more of a draw when the camera can pretty much be on him and those chasing him. But when it's a series of one-on-one matches, then that changes the viewing equation."
Second, Woods has been a mediocre player in past Ryder Cups. For whatever reason, the format doesn't fit his personality. Had he proven to be unbeatable in matches against Europe – as he often is during tournaments in the United States – perhaps his presence would bump ratings. As it is, he hasn't made an impact in five previous Ryder Cups. He doesn't even plan on attending the event in Louisville as a spectator.
But the lack of the world's most famous golfer hasn't stunted interest in a premier golf tradition. As reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal, only a few hundred hotel rooms out of 18,000 were still available for this upcoming weekend, and the event's economic impact on the region could reach $150 million, according to Louisville Ryder Cup Task Force Chair Stan Curtis.
A few premium tickets are still available, such as for the Samuel Ryder Club seats on the ninth hole ($1,800 apiece for Sunday's round), but the vast majority of tickets – about 240,000, including practice rounds – have been snapped up. After all, the event has never been held before in Louisville.
And given the fact the Ryder Cup is played in the United States only every four years, sales of souvenirs should be brisk.
Interest from corporate sponsors hasn't flagged. Citigroup is unrolling a big campaign involving Ryder Cup captains Nick Faldo and Paul Azinger (who were inked before Tiger went down). They're appearing in Golf Channel hour-long segments presented by Citi and will be featured in ads around the Ryder Cup. No reason to pull the plug just because Woods is off the course. In fact, U.S. corporations such as AT&T have already signed up for corporate hospitality packages at the 2010 Ryder Cup in South Wales without even knowing if Woods will be there.
Ironically, the absence of Tiger could end up as a boon to TV ratings. Look at it this way: The United States has been thrashed in the past two Ryder Cups and has yet to win this century. Six U.S. players – half the squad – have never played in a Ryder Cup. With this history, these no-names (has anyone started a Boo Weekley fan club?) could pull off the biggest sports upset for a national team since the U.S. hockey team stunned the Russians in Lake Placid. If they¹re in the hunt on Sunday, Ryder Cup viewership could reach a record.
So though Tiger's impact on the world of golf has been greater than anyone's in history, there's one gathering where he's simply an afterthought. A half century before Woods was born, the Ryder Cup began without him. And 50 years after he retires, it will survive just as well.