The New York Times business section tells me that golf is booming -- at least measured by the dubious standard of the number of new golf magazines out there. The Times' sports section tells me something else, at least by the standard of how many new golfers are out there. How much heat can a sport be generating when its big story for the week is that Tom Watson is finally fulfilling the promise everyone's been waiting for on the Seniors Tour?
Last Sunday's Times featured Dave Anderson's analysis of why Tiger Woods is great ("Consistency, talent and drive add up to greatness"), and my eyes glazed over it, not because of Anderson's prose but because Tiger Woods is so boring. He's shallow and self-absorbed and not at all worthy of the kind of free points the media inexplicably awards him for his Cablinasian heritage. But I don't hold any of that against Woods; on the contrary, most of the people I idolize are equally shallow, or at least as nonsubstantial. I wouldn't want them to be any other way. I'm not saying that if Jenny McCarthy wrote something for the New York Review of Books that I wouldn't read it, but I don't want it to cloud an otherwise perfect image. You know?
It's not because he doesn't stand for anything that I find Tiger Woods boring; neither, as far as I can tell, does Derek Jeter or Tim Duncan or Kurt Warner or any number of great athletes whose careers I follow with interest. I really don't expect athletes to be interesting in their private lives; between commercials and photo shoots and practice and conditioning and travel, the truth is that they don't even have private lives, no matter what the media pretends. What makes an athlete interesting is the character he displays in play, and to do that you have to have competition. What competition does Tiger Woods have? Aren't people getting a little tired of this one-man barnstorming tour?
Golf has been ready to boom in this country since well before Tiger Woods. Ron Shelton's quirky and appealing golf comedy, "Tin Cup" (1996), signaled that golf was ready to begin a new, hip, populist era. But has it boomed yet? Has it supplanted other sports in the public's attention? I don't think so. (Not unless we include some of the uglier aspects of golf that have dominated the news, such as the successful lawsuit by nine women at Haverhill Country Club in Massachusetts for equal treatment -- and it is precisely this kind of story that the new golf press ignores in its gonzo-golf universe.) Golf can boom, but the game needs new idols. If hundreds of thousands of young people of both sexes and all colors are going to swarm onto the course they need someone new to emulate. Right now, I don't see the new idols appearing. In lieu of that, the editors of the new golf magazines, such as Maximum Golf, have discovered a large and growing audience consisting of young males who have fantasies of being Andre Agassi but don't want to sweat so hard. This audience wants to see nude foldouts of "Cart Girl of the Month," and will buy magazines because Ethan Hawke is on the cover. But that audience isn't going to stick around long or grow without real golf getting more competitive, without some interesting new rivalries springing up. And right now they're not springing up.
If they were, the Seniors Tour wouldn't be dying. Or, rather, if the golfers of the previous generation had been better, there'd be more of an interest in the Seniors Tour and the ratings wouldn't be in free-fall. And there would almost certainly have been a generation of new, interesting players that followed in their wake. This never happened.
There was one player a few years ago who looked like he'd be a match for Woods. Nearly everyone has forgotten it now, but a lot of people were debating whether Woods or David Duval was the best. Indeed, in February of 1999, after a torrid round in the Bob Hope Classic, Sports Illustrated proclaimed Duval as "the best player in the game." Some were even predicting Duval vs. Woods would be the official rivalry of the next decade. Not golf rivalry. Sports rivalry. Duval has had some back trouble since, but I have seen no in-depth analysis of why he didn't continue at that level. Or, perhaps of greater interest, why a swarm of talented college kids haven't yet followed in the wake of Duval and Woods.
Big-time golf has always prided itself on its rich tradition and on its fans' reverence for the game's past, but it may soon be losing that. John Von Stade, managing director of the golf division for Millsport, one of the largest sports marketing agencies, says, "The Senior Tour is dying because, quite frankly, there were no young players 10 to 20 years ago that really caught the public's interest. The truth is that for a long time the tour was coasting on the legends of Arnold Palmer and then Jack Nicklaus and maybe four or five others. But Tom Watson and the players of his generation just didn't catch on as well with the public." No, they didn't, and the reason they didn't is that they weren't as good. And neither, it appears, are the players of today. Except for What's His Name. Back in the days when Arnold Palmer was a hungry teenager trying to hustle up caddying jobs, a top professional golfer could earn as much as a baseball player or as an athlete in almost any other professional sport. Not anymore. For all the complaints from purists that there is too much money out there now, there still isn't enough to lure top athletes away from team sports with their incredible pension plans. There's room at the top for others, but unless professional golf gets someone else out there in Woods' class, and soon, we're going to see just how far and for how long a boom can be carried by one man.