Jordan factor: Will Spieth move ratings like Woods?

My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana.

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Just when everyone was saying there wouldn’t be another Tiger Woods, here comes a player who actually is outperforming Woods at a similar age.

Jordan Spieth won his first PGA Tour event at the age of 19; Woods was 20 when he secured victory No. 1.

Spieth already has collected two majors at 21. After winning the 1997 Masters at 21, it took Woods more than two years before his second major victory at 23: the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah.

Spieth also is the youngest player to win the first two majors in a season. Woods was 26 when he achieved the feat in 2002.

All in all, a pretty good start for Mr. Spieth.

Now the focus will be squarely on Spieth, not Woods, when he tries to continue his Grand Slam bid at this week’s British Open. And the tournament will be at St. Andrews, the venerable course where Bobby Jones, Jack Nicklaus and Woods staked their claims to greatness.

Spieth clearly is the talk of golf, especially after winning again at the John Deere Classic Sunday. But will he be the talk of all sports? Can he be another Woods when it comes to spiking the ratings?

If there has been one difference thus far, it is that the hype for young Tiger was much more than for young Jordan.

Few athletes ever received more hoopla prior to turning pro than Woods. After winning an unprecedented three straight U.S. Amateurs, he delivered immediately on his vast promise with his epic victory in the ’97 Masters.

The final round pulled a 14.1 rating on CBS, which remains the all-time high for any golf telecast. Part of it was due to the history that was made on that day. Woods became the first person of color to win the Masters.

But it was more than that. Woods, with his length off the tee and cool precision with the putter, displayed a game that hadn’t been seen before in golf. He overpowered courses, forcing Augusta National, among others, to “Tiger-proof” their designs.

Much like Michael Jordan, Woods transcended the game, pulling in non-traditional golf viewers to see his amazing show. He became must-watch TV. At the peak of his powers, Woods’ presence could double the ratings for a tournament.

Now with Woods in decline, and the ratings along with it, Spieth’s emergence couldn’t be more timely for golf.

The final round of Spieth’s wire-to-wire victory in the Masters did a 8.8 rating on CBS, up 23 percent from 2014. At the U.S. Open, more than 11.2 million viewers tuned in to Fox down the stretch to see Spieth birdie the 18th hole and runner-up Dustin Johnson finish with his fatal three-putt.

Those are strong numbers to be sure, but the buzz isn’t nearly the same for Spieth as it was for Woods at 21. Unlike Woods, the hype machine wasn’t turned on for Spieth leading up to him turning pro. He definitely was a top prospect after playing one year at Texas, but he wasn’t a sure thing to be the next big thing.

As a result, Spieth somewhat snuck up on people in winning two straight majors at such a young age. It takes time for people to catch on.

“Tiger was a known prodigy since he was 3 years old,” said ESPN’s Mike Tirico. “He was a can’t-miss project who didn’t miss. He and LeBron James lived up to expectations when so many others didn’t.

“Jordan has been terrific since he was a kid, but that didn’t catch the imagination of fans nationally. He has to capture people like my mom.”

Hopefully, he will, because Spieth is a quality young man. In the latest edition of Golf Digest, Jaime Diaz writes:

“It’s instructive that unlike all those who have been liked a lot, it appears that nobody doesn’t like Spieth….Like all game-changers, Spieth benefits from timing. Just as (Arnold) Palme was a welcome change from the grim excellence of Ben Hogan, so is Spieth a respite from the distant reign of Woods.”

“My favorite thing about Jordan Spieth is that he is who we think he is,” said ESPN’s Paul Azinger. “He’s just a good guy who’s got his act together. He’s an old head on a young body.”

It remains to be seen the extent of the “Jordan Factor” in the ratings this week at the British Open. ESPN, though, figures to get a significant bump if Spieth is in contention on Sunday.

The big winner, though, could be CBS if Spieth wins the British Open and goes into the PGA Championship in August with a chance to win the Grand Slam. People will take notice.

Golf definitely is in a state of transition. The Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein noted that on an ESPN-British Open teleconference last week, it took 42 minutes before Woods’ name was mentioned.

“Congratulations!” Tirico told reporters.

Woods hasn’t disappeared completely. The ratings will soar if he ever can put together four good rounds in a major again.

However, the focus has changed to Spieth and Rory McIlroy. The two young guns have won the last four majors. It is a shame that McIlroy will have to miss the British with an injury, but he and Spieth figure to have many duels in majors in upcoming years.

Hank Gola, the veteran golf writer for the New York Daily News wrote after Spieth’s U.S. Open victory:

“It didn’t seem as though we’d ever say this but golf has gone beyond Tiger Woods. It would be tremendous if he can find his form again and get into the mix, win another tournament, maybe a major. The pipe dream? Taking a run at Jack Nicklaus’ record.

“But the thing is, it doesn’t need to happen for golf to be great.”

Indeed, Spieth is the new face of golf. If he keeps winning, non-traditional golf fans will tune in, making the networks very happy.

 

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