Just about one year ago at this time, Phil Mickelson etched his name into history forever by capturing the 2004 Masters title, the first major championship of the then-33-year-old’s career. Mickelson survived a late run from Ernie Els to write a fairy tale story in one of the most hallowed events in all of sports.
Sitting 11 shots behind Mickelson, in a tie for 22nd place, was the one and only Tiger Woods. Woods found himself falling short of yet another major since winning the 2002 U.S. Open, stuck in a slump by his own lofty standards. Entering this year’s Masters, Woods still has yet to win a major title in his last 10 tries.
But as thrilling as last year’s final day was, as “perfect” as Mickelson’s conquering of a major was to watch, seeing Woods recapture his utter dominance of the game would be even better. In fact, golf needs Tiger to do just that.
The numbers bear it out; Tiger Woods carries the PGA Tour on his back. Vijay Singh may be the top-ranked player in the world, but he is not the game’s biggest star — that spot is reserved for Woods. When Tiger falters, the public’s interest in the professional game drops. Just take a peek at the television ratings.
For all the excitement and jubilation present in Mickelson’s final round triumph a year ago, the tournament’s Sunday rating (7.3) was lower than the 2003 event, when Mike Weir won in a playoff over Len Mattiace for his first green jacket and major championship. And while Weir is a great player in his own right, he hardly possesses the fan appeal or following of Mickelson. No one ever debated endlessly over the exact date Mike Weir would capture his first career major crown.
Despite all the raw energy from the gallery at Mickelson’s victory, all the emotion from nearly everyone involved, nothing could still compare to Tiger’s romp to the hallowed green jacket in 1997. Yes, that was Woods’ first major victory — he blew the remainder of the field out of the water en route to winning by a record 12 strokes. But, despite not featuring the same sort of down-to-the-wire finish and clutch putting present in Mickelson’s win, Tiger’s blowout victory garnered a Nielsen rating of 14.1 — nearly double that of Phil’s Sunday.
Simply put, Tiger Woods has revolutionized his sport in the modern era. During his first string of dominance, he placed golf and, by association, the PGA Tour, on the same platform as America’s favorite major sports. His 1997 Masters win drew similar ratings to the year’s World Series (which drew a mark of 16.8), a seven-game thriller between the Florida Marlins and Cleveland Indians. The ’97 NBA Finals, which saw Michael Jordan hit one of the most memorable shots in the history of basketball in his final game with the Chicago Bulls, also garnered a rating of 16.8.
Keep in mind that those World Series and Finals games were both broadcast during primetime, while Woods’ performance took place on a warm Sunday afternoon.
Now, with the popularity of golf waning, the sport needs Tiger to rescue it once again. And what better a stage than this Masters?
Woods enters Augusta as somewhat of an enigma despite being ranked third on the tour money list with over $2.4 million accumulated entering the weekend. Tiger has won two of the seven events he has played in this year (the Buick Invitational in late January and the Ford Championship at Doral in early March), but finished 23rd and 53rd, respectively, in his last two tournaments.
Mickelson, on the other hand, begins his title defense in nearly perfect fashion, ranked No. 1 on the money list ahead of Vijay Singh and Woods. “Lefty” is the smart choice for a favorite in a truly wide-open field, with three wins on the tour this year, including a playoff victory in last weekend’s BellSouth Classic.
However, even with all those factors weighing in Mickelson’s favor, it’s hard to label a favorite without mentioning the name Tiger Woods. Regardless of his recent dry spell in majors, Tiger is still, well, Tiger.
And while watching Ernie Els snag his first green jacket or Mickelson repeat his feel-good story might be riveting for hardcore golf enthusiasts, seeing Woods re-establish himself as the player to beat on tour is exactly what the sport needs.