How to grow the game of golf is talked about on fairways, 19th holes and boardrooms the world over.
As the sport battles to maintain its relevancy and popularity well into the 21st century, the topic continues to dominate conversations.
So many factors are conspiring to challenge golf’s popularity, including economic pressure and a modern world where everything seems to be getting shorter and instant gratification is an increasing trend.
The answer is staring us in the face.
It’s called Tiger Woods.
How many people, golfers and strangers alike, will have woken up on 15 April and found the topic of the day to be Tiger’s remarkable 15th Major title victory? And among the millions talking about his fifth Masters win, for every one who goes out on to a driving range for the first time, Woods will have done more for growing the game than any conventional promotion or advert could have.
In 1974 an ageing (then 32) Muhammad Ali knocked out the undefeated (40-0) world heavyweight champion George Foreman in Zaire. It was a stunning upset and added to the aura of Ali. He was bigger than boxing, bigger than sport. He’d spent years in jail rather than fight in the Vietnam War. He’d also thrown his 1960 Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River after being refused entry to a ‘whites only’ restaurant.
Ali was one of sport’s great figures and it’s no coincidence that heavyweight boxing has never been as popular as when he was around. Shortly after reading about his triumph over Foreman, I went to the gym and laced on a pair of boxing gloves for the first time. Never very good, I tried and battled through the bloody noses and cut lips – and actually wished I could have been better. It initiated my ongoing love for the sport.
When Bruce Fordyce won his first of nine Comrades Marathons in 1981, I went out and got a pair of second-hand running shoes. That year I ran my first standard marathon, inspired by standing on the side of the road and watching Fordyce run into Maritzburg.
Similarly, watching Barry Richards open the batting for Natal in the 1970s with a white bat which was sponsored by the local milk board for a rand a run, inspired me to also get a white bat, and I was selected to open the batting for my school team. A first-ball swinging yorker (out lbw) from an SA Schools left-arm quickie left me with a broken, bloodied toe and a permanent reminder that I’d never be Barry Richards.
There are other examples, but the main point is that, inspired by heroes I’d seen or heard about at the time, I’d started participating in a sport I had not previously done.
Which is where we get back to Tiger Woods. An inspiration to young and old, those of us who think we’re cursed by stiff joints, bad backs and short swings, his comeback and ensuing victory at Augusta is an inspiration to millions. Statistically, he might not yet rank as the greatest golfer of all time (Jack Nicklaus edges him in Major wins 18-15) but Woods is the Pied Piper of golf.
Nearly 11 years passed between his 14th Major victory at the 2008 US Open and his 15th, at the 2019 Masters. In between has been a lifetime of ups and downs, but he has emerged from adversity to the stage where he is now. For a decade we were deprived of watching Woods’ wizardry. He has an aura about him, and when he leads, people follow. Literally.
Now age 43 he has done it again. Like Ali did when he was 32, in an era when 30 was over the hill. Sure, he won’t be as good as he once was, but imagine how many people are going to start swinging a golf club for the first time just because they watched Tiger Woods in 2019.
Every sport needs icons to help it grow.
Golf is blessed that Tiger is back.
– Lemke writes a monthly column for Compleat Golfer