Why the PGA’s in post-Tiger transition
New ‘Core Four’ emerges amid questions around Tiger’s return to the PGA
By Chad Lewis
The Safeway Open, which begins Thursday and effectively kicks off the 2016–17 PGA TOUR season, was supposed to mark the return of one of golf’s most recognizable names, Tiger Woods. Tiger withdrew from the event on Monday citing vulnerabilities with his game. This reignites questions around Tiger’s return and, specifically, ‘When?’ or ‘Will he ever return’, ’In what form?’ and ‘Will we ever see the early 2000’s Tiger?’. Which raises another overarching question: ‘Is the PGA stronger today with or without the presence of one of golf’s marquee players?’
A new ‘Core Four’
Whether or not we’ve seen the last of Tiger Woods, the PGA TOUR has seen the re-emergence of a new ‘Core Four’ that has materialized over the past few years since Tiger’s last win in 2013 and recent inactivity. We saw this roughly a decade ago, when Tiger made up one-fourth of the core alongside Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and an interchangeable fourth of Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen, David Duval and Sergio Garcia before Woods became the breakout star of the organization and asserted his dominance for the better part of a decade.
Flash forward to today, his time away from the PGA spotlight has marked a return to a new ‘Core Four’ which now includes young, dynamic players like Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson (crowned 2016 PGA TOUR Player of the Year). The new ‘Core Four’ also comes with a very deep bench of young talent and notable journeymen through the top-25 golfers in the world.
Marketing around this next generation of golfers amid Tiger’s absence has certainly undergone a rather dramatic transition as well.
From ‘Just Do It’ to ‘I Will’
Case in point, the emergence of companies like UnderArmour that now pose a legitimate threat to the long-standing dominance of Nike, which made Woods the world’s highest paid face of the PGA through the numerous multimillion dollar contracts he signed dating back to his 1996 debut. Nike recently announced they’re no longer producing ‘hard equipment’ including clubs (drivers, irons and putters), balls and bags to focus on apparel and footwear. Flash ahead to today and what you are seeing is young golfers gravitating towards UnderArmour and other brands such as Puma and Vineyard Vines. In the process, they are challenging perennial powerhouse golf apparel brands such as Titleist, Adidas / TaylorMade, Cutter & Buck, Ashworth, Ping and Callaway (to name a few) for that highly coveted youth brand alliance and recognition.
Golf has always been an international sport, as evidenced by legends like Gary Player (South Africa) Greg Norman (Australia), Nick Faldo (England) and Seve Ballasteros (Spain) as well as the growth in international events such as the World Golf Championship (WGC) in Shanghai, China later this month to remarkable growth in popularity in Ryder Cup and President Cup tournaments, which was played in South Korea in 2015. The breadth of nations housing PGA TOUR professional golfers has widened notably throughout South America and Asia Pacific in addition to more players from the aforementioned nations.
Golf has a long history of legends, most of whom are recognized by one name from Hagen, Jones, and Sarazen to Hogan, Palmer, Player and Nicklaus to Watson, Faldo and Norman, and, of course, Tiger. During their respective reigns, there was some uncertainty around the future path of the game. The PGA TOUR has gone through another relative sea change during Tiger’s inactivity. Names like Speith, McIlroy, Johnson and Day will undoubtedly change the game once again in their unique way.
But how will the sport be marketed throughout the world with the emergence of new brand names (UnderArmour, Puma) challenging the long-standing supremacy of the old guard (Nike, Titleist)? Will international growth spur new markets, youth movements and new superstars? Has the sport and marketing around it changed permanently even if Tiger returns to the top of golf’s upper ranks?
With constant debate over the future participation levels and interest from millennials and future generations, will Tiger’s core fan base remain interested over the long term? Are the new Core Four and supporting cast willing and able to carry the torch? With Tiger now serving as an elder statesman of sorts among this new crop of golf superstars, whether he returns to the sport and, if so, how the PGA will be marketed upon his return will be something worth watching in the coming months and years.