There might be 10 million reasons to explain why PGA Tour golfers are playing for so much money these days, but the safe bet is to start with one. Tiger Woods.
It is no coincidence that purses, popularity and perks in the sport of golf have soared in the past 15 years since Woods burst into national prominence with his first Masters victory. During the Woods era, television ratings have reached new heights and interest in the sport has grown so much that the tour can afford to offer a $10-million first prize to the winner of the four-stop FedEx Cup playoffs, which begin Thursday with The Barclays at Bethpage Black.
Woods is not as widely beloved as he was when he won the U.S. Open at Bethpage in 2002 and played here again in 2009. The scandal in his personal life has cost him the devotion of many fans. Still, he has power as a drawing card, TV attraction and trendsetter for young golfers worldwide.
Jim Liu, a Smithtown teenager who in 2010 broke Woods' record as the youngest U.S. Junior Amateur champion, flies to California several times a year just so he can study with John Anselmo, the teacher who taught Woods in his youth.
"He has had a big impact on me. He was and still is my idol,'' Liu said of Woods, a 14-time major champion who is in the field for the Barclays. "He has done so much for the game. He is arguably one of the best golfers to ever play. He has inspired a lot of young guys to take up the game, like Rickie Fowler and Ryo Ishikawa.''
Zach Johnson, who will play with Woods and Rory McIlroy in the first two rounds of The Barclays, said Tuesday at Bethpage, "You can't deny the fact that he has taken the game to another level. In the late '90s, it just started to skyrocket.''
Yet despite his mighty impact on the sport of golf, Woods has not had the same effect on the game of golf -- the one that most of us pay our green fees or club membership to play. Golf's grass roots have not had a growth spurt. At best, the recreational game has been stagnant in recent years, with more local courses closing than opening. That is the dichotomy facing the two worlds of golf: the one that produced a champion on the weathered public courses of Southern California and the one that now allows the top pros to purchase private jets.
By any measure, the state of the pro game is robust. First place this week, in only the first leg of the playoffs, is worth $1.44 million. That is more than all but two golfers (Tom Lehman and Phil Mickelson) earned for all of the 1996 season. Excitement already is brewing on both sides of the Atlantic for the Ryder Cup, matching the U.S. and Europe, to be held late next month at Medinah Country Club just outside of Chicago.
All four of the major championships are flourishing, even the PGA, which generally is considered the fourth most important. ''We have found it is a fairly simple formula. If you have the best athletes, that is the most important element,'' said Joe Steranka, chief executive officer of the PGA of America.
How many people can name the fellow who caddied for Nicklaus in his prime? But caddies are personalities now because of the reflected glamour for Woods' loopers, Fluff Cowan, Steve Williams and Joe LaCava. When Williams was on Woods' bag, some reports classified him as the highest-paid sports figure in New Zealand, his home country.
Business is so good that young people are trying to get into it, following Woods' blueprint of practice and physical training. Woods does not like to speak of the "Tiger effect,'' and when he was asked about it earlier this year, said only, "Yeah, there is a little bit of that.'' Then he went on to say, "I think that the game has become more global. I think that's where the biggest change has been.''
Woods' global popularity seems to have taken a hit after the revelations about his personal life, but he still ranks highly among young golfers. Branden Grace of South Africa, a winner of three pro tournaments this year, said this on the eve of his first tournament round with Woods earlier this month: "It's unreal. He's my idol. He's been my role model since I started playing golf. Tomorrow is a little bit of a dream come true.''
Cristie Kerr, a major champion on the LPGA Tour, said, "Tiger Woods did a really great thing. He made golf cool. Now everybody plays golf.''
Well, not everybody. According to the National Golf Foundation, only 19 courses opened last year in the U.S. while 157 courses closed. That reflected the industry's reports that rounds played have either declined or stagnated in the past five years. In a stark illustration of how Woods' pull has not tugged the rank and file, his own course design company has stopped work on two projects because of lack of funding and / or interest.
People who work in golf have cited the sluggish economy, golf's cost and time commitment.
Golf organizations are trying various concepts -- shortening holes, experimenting with 12-hole rounds, offering programs for women and youths -- to attract new golfers and keep the ones it has. "Particularly for the recreational golfer, there needs to be more emphasis on enjoyment of the game, more emphasis on affordability of the game and more emphasis on welcome-ness in the game,'' Glen Nager, president of the U.S. Golf Association, said during the U.S. Open.
Officials are hopeful, and the National Golf Foundation reports that rounds so far this year are up from last year.
What's more, golfers point out that golf has been around for centuries. The sport and the game are more than one person. "We've also shown that when he had some injuries and whatnot that we can survive without him, too, and we can build and grow,'' Johnson said of Woods. "He is a huge, huge part of the PGA Tour. No one is going to deny that. But I still think our game is in a great position and I think our product is in a great position. I don't think anyone or any entity is above that.''