The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

Z_CNHI News Service

April 17, 2014

Golf turns into snooze-fest without celebrities like Tiger and Phil

If professional golf saw its future at Augusta National last weekend, the sight had to be worse than choking on a five-foot putt.

The course was there in all its splendor. You couldn't miss the dogwoods. Bubba Watson was his composed, confident self.

But drama was nowhere to be found.

With Tiger Woods on medical leave and Phil Mickelson given a rare weekend pass after two uninspired opening rounds, the Masters fizzled. That’s to be expected when the game’s big stars are missing.

Also AWOL were fans who normally park in front of their TV sets but this year were off doing something else. The final round earned a 7.8 TV rating, which means only 7.8 percent of U.S. households watched Watson score a three-shot victory over second-place finishers Jordan Spieth and Jonas Blixt. That was the lowest final-round rating since 2004, when Mickelson donned a green jacket at the end of the day.

With Woods and Mickelson now well into the back nine of their careers, PGA executives, fans and businesses aligned with the game must be wondering who will step up and win our attention. Athletic skill is a prerequisite, but it also takes someone with charisma and charm.

Watson could be the one. He enjoys boyish good looks, and who can’t help but pull for someone named Bubba? Furthermore, his game speaks for itself.

The one rub on him is that he can be prickly. He’s had run-ins with other golfers – not always a gentleman in the ultimate gentleman’s game. Also, he’s been quick to admonish a caddie for selecting the wrong club or when a shot is misplayed. Attribute some of that to a fiercely competitive nature, but those remain traits that cause most fans to cringe.

Perhaps Watson is learning valuable lessons about his image, especially in this day of instant information. He certainly burnished his reputation after winning the Masters by taking his family and friends to the Waffle House for a celebratory gathering as well as hash browns. That common touch is sure to score well with those who like to see the human side of their sporting heroes.

Woods and Mickelson have literally and figuratively been the face of professional golf for so long, it’s hard to imagine who has the polish and poise to supplant them.

Watson, who has won the Masters twice in the past three years, is well positioned to become the guy the field is constantly chasing.

Spieth, who was merely a toddler when Woods captured his first Masters in 1997, at age 22 became the youngest player to make the final two-some at the Masters. He didn’t win but it wasn’t for wilting under pressure. The experience he gained is invaluable.

Both Watson and Spieth are ranked in the most recent World Golf Rankings’ Top 10, which features five Americans and five foreign players. One would expect to find Woods (1st) and Mickelson (8th) at the top of any leader board; Watson (4th) and Spieth (9th) seem set for many years to come.

While their games are exceptional, will the public come to endorse Watson or Spieth as it has other golfing greats?  Or will that honor, and responsibility, fall to someone else?

It could be Matt Kuchar, or perhaps someone else just waiting for a chance to step into the pro spotlight and dramatically win a championship as well as the public’s fascination.

Despite their ailments, Tiger and Phil still have the hearts of champions. They've won a combined 19 major championships. There could be more, although Woods hasn’t won one since 2008. (Mickelson captured the British Open last year.)

Golf is a game driven by great players, but the majors also need tension and excitement. That’s what was missing at the Masters.

Bring back the drama, and you’ll bring back the fans.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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