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Why Jordan Spieth Can't Cure Golf's Tiger Woods Hangover

Jordan Spieth looks like golf's next great star, but the sport is still suffering from a prolonged Tiger Woods Hangover.

by Greg Couch
24 June 2015, 8:30am

Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

In the film Jurassic World, we're told that scientists felt the need to create a new dinosaur — bigger, louder, more teeth — because people had gotten too used to seeing regular dinosaurs, like boring old T. Rex, and weren't coming to the dinosaur zoo anymore. So genetic engineers went about their business, and, well, I don't want totally spoil the rest of the movie, but you can probably guess that what happens next involves a ferocious creature that can roar at the same decibel level as a 747 jet taking off and landing.

In the golf world, by contrast, there is no Indominus Rex.

Oh, sure, golf has managed to concoct sound effects. And drones. And some old guy with an Australian accent, who used to be Greg Norman and might be again if they'd let him wear his shark hat. On top of that, golf has Jordan Spieth.

Roar. Jordan Spieth.

Spieth won the Masters in April and on Sunday he won the U.S. Open. Golf fans think he's the sport's savior. He's not. He's exciting, for sure, and maybe even a historically great golfer. But golf has a thorny problem, one that Speith can't solve.

It's suffering from a Tiger Woods Hangover.

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Woods isn't coming back. Not all the way. Probably not even close. It has been a half-decade since his driveway implosion, and the sport still hasn't gotten over him. Spieth isn't the next big party so much as the cool, damp washcloth golf is putting on its forehead while trying to recover.

All those years, Woods was supposed to be fixing golf's problems. It turns out he was only masking them. The sport's boom under Woods was based on a mirage. No, Woods wasn't the mirage. He was the real deal. The mirage was what people thought Woods was doing to golf.

Golf courses are closing everywhere across the country. Equipment sales are crashing. Kids aren't playing. Plenty of courses are even tinkering with making much larger golf holes so kids can get the ball in easier — the better to see as fun, and not as an ancient form of Scottish sporting torture.

What happened to all those kids Woods was bringing into the game? Aren't they adults now, playing the game? It turns out that kids didn't see golf as fun; they saw Tiger as fun.

And what happened to all the black golfers Tiger was bringing in? Remember the TV commercials when one kid after another would say "I am Tiger Woods?'' God, that was great. It was an inclusive message for a historically expensive, elitist, un-inclusive sport. It was important. It was a real opportunity for golf to expand, both economically and culturally.

It seems so very long ago.

Netscape Mosaic, Dan Cortese, ARMs, Ed Hardy shirts, Tiger Woods: Things that were bigger and better in the 1990s and 2000s. --Photo by Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

When Woods fled in an Ambien-and-Vicodin (for back pain) haze from golf-club wielding wife Elin Nordegren in 2009, that didn't only turn out to be the end of Woods' greatness, but also of golf as a mainstream game. According to the National Golf Foundation, 14 new 18-hole golf courses were built in the U.S. in 2013 — meanwhile, 157.5 were closed. Of those shut-down courses, 151 were public-access. Public courses, as opposed to private clubs, are where you'd expect to find growth in the game. People interested in trying it out without making a huge financial commitment. People who can't afford to try or play golf otherwise.

Those are the people Woods was supposed to bring to golf. Instead, 4.1 million players left in 2013, including, according to Bloomberg, 200,000 between the ages of 18-34 who "abandoned the game.'' In May 2014, according to Forbes, Dick's Sporting Goods announced a drop in revenues, and most of it was because of failing golf sales. Its Golf Galaxy stores were down 10.4 percent. Our shrinking middle-class and increasing levels of income inequality mean more and more people have less and less money for things like golf. And now the courses for the middle class are going away.

Of course, none of this is Spieth's fault. He's doing everything one person can. He's just not a bigger, flashier dinosaur, a show-stopping attraction we've never seen before. He appears to be a great golfer with a bright future and a maybe a good rivalry with Rory McIlroy. Perhaps the best Spieth he can do is take fans' eyes off the car wreck of Woods' career. That's a plus.

But are any new eyes going to follow him, the way they followed Woods?

Woods isn't going to get it back together. Not as his body continues to break down and he moves into his 40s at the end of the year. No matter how great Speith ends up being for golf, he won't be Woods. Can't be Woods. No one can. As we're learning now, Woods and golf were two different things all along.

Woods was Woods.

Golf was golf.

We accidentally combined them. People might not remember the explosion when Woods entered the golf world. The shock factor when he won that 1997 Masters. He was young, black, powerful as a superhero and had that fantastic smile. And he humiliated the mainstays on the tour.

We hadn't seen that before. I went to a tournament Woods won at Cog Hill outside of Chicago, and as he walked up the final fairway for a win, fans couldn't wait. They broke through the ropes meant to hold them back, thousands of fans charging out onto the fairway behind him.

Chaos? Nope.

They lined up a safe distance behind Woods and walked calmly behind him. They followed.

What you saw Sunday was Spieth winning because Dustin Johnson three-putted the final hole. Spieth wasn't even on the course for the celebration, and then he was too much in shock to celebrate when they got him. He also was too much of a gentleman, as it would have been rubbing it into Johnson.

FOX now broadcasts the U.S. Open and it tried to add its typical doo-dads, swish sounds and things. It got rid of the blimp and used a drone. Critics focused on some of the network's rookie mistakes, but it did a fine job. FOX is trying to liven things up a little, and get those 18-34-year-olds watching again. The ratings were decent.

Still, the momentum is just too weak, the Tiger Hangover too big. Golf is now wedded to Jordan Spieth. He's great with a bag of clubs, entertaining for people who already like the sport, but not a social phenomenon. A talented 20-something in golf? Well, we've seen that before, too. The zoo's the same as it ever was, and without Woods, it's hard to see how golf can make a bigger dinosaur with more teeth. Not without genetic engineers, at least.

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