Tiger Woods returned to the Masters on Thursday for the first time since 2015, shooting an opening-round 1-over 73 and slotting into 29th place headed into Friday. One year after his fourth back surgery — and six months removed from talk that he might never play competitive golf again — the 42-year-old is in the midst of a highly anticipated comeback.
So far, Woods has delivered. He finished in the top five at back-to-back PGA Tour events in March, and television ratings, ticket prices and fan excitement have swelled with his return. And that got me wondering — just how much of an impact does Woods have on television ratings for the Masters? Considering that the likes of Jordan Spieth (first place through round one) and Rory McIlroy (tied for fourth) remain in contention as we near the weekend, are they a decent enough consolation prize for CBS if Woods falls off pace by Sunday?
I looked back at the event’s national Nielsen ratings since 1958,1 showing the percentage of TV-owning households tuning in, with an eye toward some of golf’s biggest names — players who commonly appear on lists of the “greatest golfers of all time,”2 those who have won the Masters multiple times in the television era and a couple of recent winners. I specifically focused on the ratings for Masters Sunday, when the four-day tournament’s final round is usually played.3
Tiger Woods’s first two Masters victories, in 1997 (14.1 Sunday rating) and 2001 (13.3), produced the highest Sunday ratings in event history — about 50 percent above the long-term average. In ratings terms, that’s roughly on par with last year’s college football national championship and the deciding game of the NBA Finals. In 1997, Woods became the youngest champion at the Masters, set a new margin-of-victory record and shot the tournament’s lowest-ever 72-hole score.4 Ratings came back to earth when he won again in 2002 (9.2) and 2005 (9.8) but were still above average. The next three highest-rated rounds came in 1975 (11.9), 1972 (11.8) and 1966 (10.9),5 when Jack Nicklaus won three of his six green jackets.
Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo and Phil Mickelson also boast one Masters victory apiece with a Sunday rating of 10.5 or better, though all of Palmer, Watson and Mickelson’s other wins were below average in terms of viewership.6
And that matters. From a ratings perspective, viewers don’t seem to care very much who’s battling it out atop the leaderboard on the final day of the Masters — unless it’s Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus. In the table below, you can see how television ratings increase with the success of those two. Statistics bear this out, too. High finishes by Woods and Nicklaus are the only variables I identified that have a statistically significant effect on Sunday ratings. There’s no bounce when most other big names do well — and in many cases, there’s a decline.
Tiger and Jack move the Masters ratings needle
Average Sunday Nielsen rating by player performance, 1958-2017
|Player||1st masters||Won||Top 10||Other*|
|Jose Maria Olazabal||1985||9.1||8.7||9.9|
And what about when lesser-known golfers take home the green jacket — like if Tony Finau or Bernd Wiesberger were to make a run on Sunday after solid starts? In those cases, CBS should hope they’re dueling with Tiger Woods. When Adam Scott, Charl Schwartzel and Trevor Immelman won in 2013, 2011 and 2008, respectively, Tiger finished in the top five. Those Sundays saw an average rating of 9.2. Meanwhile, Danny Willett and Mike Weir’s victories — with Woods out of the tournament in 2016 and out of the top 10 in 2003 — produced an average final-round rating of 8.0. In fact, since Tiger burst onto the scene in 1997, the five lowest-rated final rounds have coincided with his three Masters absences and two worst finishes.
Even Mickelson — who has long been one of the most popular golfers on tour — didn’t move the Masters rating needle on his own. Before Lefty finally won his first title at Augusta in 2004, he was the best golfer without a major and had finished in the top 10 at a major 17 times. And yet, his narrative garnered the Masters a 7.3 rating, at the time the fourth lowest since 1958. This may have had to do with Tiger being well off the lead that Sunday, finishing tied for 22nd.7 Flash-forward to 2010: Woods — who was playing in the wake of scandal — was competing with Mickelson and others in a dramatic final round on Sunday. Phil would win his third green jacket, Woods finished tied for fourth, and the broadcast notched a 10.7 rating, sixth highest ever.8
Masters ratings are ultimately influenced by more than just who’s in the mix toward the end of the final round. But when you’re basking in the Masters theme song and Bob Ross-like whispers of CBS’s Jim Nantz this Sunday, rest assured that if he’s calling Tiger’s name on 18, CBS will be enjoying the type of ratings that only Woods (or Nicklaus) can create.