Tiger Woods’ captivating return to golf is great news for TV

Back on track.
Back on track.
Image: AP Photo/Dante Carrer
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After almost a year out of the sport, Tiger Woods has returned to competitive golf. He’s currently tied for fifth place at the Hero World Challenge, a tournament taking place this weekend in the Bahamas that features some of the best players in the world. (Woods is hosting the tournament, which benefits his charitable foundation.)

Tiger Woods comebacks have become a bit of a cliché in recent years. Since his infidelity scandal in 2009, the legendary golfer has been in and out of the game on a regular basis, dogged by injuries and personal problems. In May, Woods was arrested in Florida for driving under the influence; he was recovering from a fourth back surgery and said he had accidentally mixed too many different prescription drugs. He pleaded guilty in October to a lesser plea of reckless driving and escaped jail time in exchange for probation and community service.

But something about this latest comeback feels different. Though there’s no telling how his surgically-fused back will hold up to a grueling PGA Tour schedule, Woods already looks close to his old self, striping fairways and draining long putts. He’s even driving the ball farther than some of the longest hitters on tour. At seven under par, he’s ahead of several of the world’s best players, including world number one, Dustin Johnson, and number three, Justin Thomas. (Woods tees off for his third round of the Hero World Challenge today around 1pm US eastern time.)

Golf fans know that the sport is at its best when Woods—a once-in-a-generation talent and winner of more than 100 tournaments in his 20-year career—is healthy and playing well. And when golf fans are happy, television executives are happy. Nothing will benefit more from Woods’ return than the networks that broadcast it.

The sport is in the midst of a TV ratings slump. There’s some debate (paywall) around the severity of the decline, but the numbers don’t lie. In April, the Masters, one of the four major PGA tournaments of the year, had its lowest TV ratings in 13 years. The PGA Championship in August drew its lowest rating since 2008.

If Woods is healthy enough to play in those tournaments next year, those numbers will almost certainly improve.

Golf Channel executive producer Molly Solomon told Reuters that she expects the presence of Woods alone to boost the network’s ratings by 40%. In 2013, when Woods was in contention at the Masters, the tournament saw a 26% increase in its TV ratings from the year before. In 2014, when Woods didn’t play, the Masters ratings tanked. A year later, when Woods was back in the tournament, the ratings increased dramatically again. The correlation is clear: Woods is the sport’s biggest TV draw.