Tour without Tiger lacks teeth

MIAMI - Nobody has to tell Eddie Carbone how much Tiger Woods means to golf.

Carbone, tournament director of the CA Championship at Doral Resort Golf & Spa, knows firsthand that the indefinite leave of absence of the advertising icon - tarnished as he might be - will have a major impact on the sport.

Woods has not been seen in public since a one-car accident outside his home Nov. 27 set off a media frenzy, which led to a string of allegations of extramarital affairs. The beleaguered star admitted to infidelity in a statement and took a leave from the PGA Tour to repair his personal life. Some sponsors have distanced themselves from him, and his wife, Elin Nordegren, reportedly has moved out with their two children and might be seeking a divorce.

Every time Woods was on TV selling Nike products, Gillette razors, Tag Heuer watches, Gatorade and Accenture, he also was selling golf. Prize money quadrupled since Woods joined the PGA Tour, from $70 million in 1996 to $278 million in 2009. Whenever Woods plays, casual fans tune in. When he doesn't, they hit the snooze button.

Carbone remembers a phone call he received at 2:23 p.m. on March 6. It was such an important call he recalls the exact time. Woods was calling to let Carbone know that he would, in fact, play in the 2009 CA Championship, making it his second stop in his return from knee surgery. Up until that moment, his participation in the event was iffy.

Carbone hardly could contain his glee. His staff celebrated. Within hours, the news had spread, and phones started ringing off the hook at the ticket office. When Woods stepped onto the practice green in the predawn hours that following Tuesday, hundreds of fans and media members were there to capture the moment.

TV ratings for the events Woods regularly plays are expected to take a substantial hit during his hiatus, as they did for the eight months he sat out after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery following his 2008 U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines in San Diego.

According to Nielsen ratings, the weekend broadcasts for events Woods played following the 2008 U.S. Open drew an average audience of 4.6 million. A year later, during his absence, the same events drew 2.4 million viewers - a drop of 47 percent.

Woods' final victory round of the 2007 PGA Championship drew an audience of 9 million, and Padraig Harrington's victory round in 2008 was watched by 5.13 million viewers, a decline of 57.6 percent.

Nevertheless, Page Thompson, president of the Golf Channel, believes professional golf will remain healthy without Woods.

"When Tiger doesn't play, TV ratings will go down 40 to 50 percent for those events, and ad revenue goes down, but people forget that Tiger plays in less than a third of the events on the PGA Tour," Thompson said. "We televise 150 events on our channel, so even if Tiger doesn't play the whole year, we won't feel it that much.

"Tiger is unsurpassed as a golfer in this age, and I believe he will win people back and redeem himself someday. In the meantime, golf will go on."

Steve Stricker is among the many tour players who benefit from Woods' bringing exposure to the sport, and he doesn't deny the tour won't be the same without him.

"There's no doubt we need him," Striker said. "We need him out here because of sponsorships and just the awareness of our tour in general. Hopefully, he gets it taken care of and gets back out."

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem spent the majority of his year-end teleconference reporting on new sponsorship deals and extensions signed in recent months.

"I don't see corporate America backing away from golf over Tiger's issues," he said.

He stressed that during the past three years, tour events are second only to the NFL in total TV viewers per week (26 million over the four days of a tournament). The tour's six-year deals with CBS and NBC expire in 2012 and negotiations for new deals are expected to begin next year. Finchem insisted he is not worried and said "projections of doom and gloom are misleading."

"I know some pundits will say Tim is trying to spin this and spin that, but facts are facts," Finchem said. "The commentary is coming from people who don't understand our business model.

"I think we're on the eve of a golden age of golf from a growth standpoint, and having any player, even if it's the No.1 player, have personal issues like this, I don't think you're going to deter that growth. I don't think it will have a stunting effect by any means."

As for Carbone, he and his staff will continue to prepare for their 2010 tournament, March11-14, and cross their fingers that Woods will be back.

"Tiger has until the Friday prior to the event to let us know his plans," Carbone said. "Last year, it came down to the last minute, and maybe this year will be the same. I just wish him and his family the best at this point. Nobody really has any idea what's going to happen."