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Tiger Woods Never Really Left

The 18-man field of this week’s Hero World Challenge1 — a tournament that seems to function mostly as an excuse to wrangle the world’s best golfers and Derek Jeter for a hang in the Bahamas — features eight players ranked in the top 10 and nine others ranked no lower than No. 32. Rounding out the field is the world’s 1,199th-ranked golfer, otherwise known as Tiger Woods. Take a guess at who’s getting the lion’s share of attention?

Woods made his latest return to professional golf on Thursday, giving us another excuse to indulge in a long-running national obsession. Tiger hasn’t won a tournament since 2013, and he hasn’t made a cut since 2015. He played just four meaningful2 rounds of golf in 2016, and the event in the Bahamas is his first start in 10 months.

But Woods’s prolonged absence hasn’t sidelined his status as golf’s biggest celebrity. To measure this using the Media Cloud — a database that collects news published on the internet every day — we looked at every time the words “Tiger Woods” appeared in a headline on a mainstream U.S. media outlet from the beginning of 2014 to the eve of the Hero World Challenge. Tiger garnered 4,489 articles3 despite making just 22 starts in that time. This number exceeds each of the five players who have held the No. 1 world ranking since Woods last gave it up: Rory McIlroy (3,844 headlines), Jordan Spieth (2,682), Dustin Johnson (1,207), Jason Day (995) and Adam Scott (512).

The injuries and the extended absences gave Tiger ample time to fade into the background while a crop of young stars like McIlroy and Spieth ascended. But Tiger never really went away: Even though he hasn’t spent much time on the golf course, he still managed to garner more headlines than the others in this group in 24 of the past 47 months.

The months since 2014 in which Tiger’s mentions are surpassed by any of these players mostly track with a given player’s success — or a given player’s epic collapse — at a major championship. For example, McIlroy’s headline mentions outpaced Tiger’s in July 2014 when he finally got over the hump to win his first British Open. Spieth’s mentions exceeded Tiger’s in June 2015 when he became the first 21-year-old to win the U.S. Open since Bobby Jones did so in 1923. In August 2015, Day and Spieth battled for the PGA Championship (where McIlroy was the defending champion). Day ultimately edged Spieth to claim the Wanamaker Trophy, and all three players’ names popped up in the media more frequently than Tiger’s that month.

And even if Tiger had been swinging his sticks in April 2016 — he effectively disappeared from the public eye for much of that year — it’s safe to assume Spieth would have still topped Tiger that month: Spieth’s quadruple-bogey at Amen Corner on Sunday at the Masters was the story of the golf season, if not golf’s past half-decade.

Tiger’s mentions spiked again in October 2016 when rumors of his return to competitive golf began to swirl (though he eventually postponed that return), and he’s remained steadily at or around the top since.4 And Tiger’s biggest peak came in late May and early June of this year after his arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence of, well, seemingly everything.5

The overall trend has held true over the past two years, even as Tiger has been nonexistent in professional golf. Here’s how Woods has compared over that span to the top 10 PGA Tour money leaders in headlines,6 according to Media Cloud.

The irony here is that these past two years have been an exciting time for golf as numerous stars have emerged in the Tigerless landscape. Over the course of the past two PGA Tour seasons, the 10 players in the chart above — which includes exciting American talents such as Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed — have combined to rack up more than $100 million and win four of the past eight majors. Despite the cupboard being stocked with all the ingredients for a piquant tabloid stew — youth, success, money, celebrity relationships, some casual cocaine use — none of these moneyed young players in the primes of their careers have managed to grow their personal brand enough to surpass the ultimate golf celebrity.

Tiger Mania has had peaks and valleys, but it’s never died down entirely. If Tiger says his back is feeling good, we’re paying attention. If Tiger sneezes, we’re paying attention. And if Tiger messes up, we’re definitely paying attention. But now that he’s picked up the bag again, it would be nice if the quality of his game returned to the sublime golf that made us fall in love with him to begin with — and allow us to focus on that.

Geoff Foster contributed research to this piece.

Footnotes

  1. This event is hosted by Tiger Woods and is a benefit for the Tiger Woods Foundation.

  2. Assuming you count last year’s Hero World Challenge as “meaningful.”

  3. This may include different versions of the same story.

  4. One big exception: July 2017, when Spieth and McIlroy battled for the Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale.

  5. We’ve all seen the mugshot; we don’t need to make another joke about the mugshot.

  6. Doesn’t include money earned on the European Tour and other non-PGA Tour circuits.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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