Passion for golf is waning in U.S.

Rory McIlroy has a reason to smile.
Rory McIlroy has a reason to smile. (STUART FRANKLIN / Getty Images)
Posted: July 22, 2014

Rory McIlroy won the British Open on Sunday, completing three legs of golf's career Grand Slam, with only the Masters still to check off on his to-do list. The Northern Ireland native is 25, personable, hits the ball a ton and plays an exciting game. On this side of the ocean, however, McIlroy's win was greeted with little more than passing interest.

Dedicated golf fans - at least those willing to plunk in front of the television for a tournament rather than pursue the unforgiving ball around the course - continue to follow the game, but their numbers are dwindling.

As has been noted repeatedly, interest in golf in the United States tends to form a graph plotted by the availability and competitiveness of some guy named Tiger Woods. The purists don't like to hear this, but there are no casual fans when Woods is not in the race.

At Royal Liverpool, Woods, playing just his second tournament since March back surgery, had his worst finish at a major tournament. He finished at 6-over-par and in 69th place, 23 strokes behind McIlroy, and 5 strokes behind ancient Tom Watson, who will have to decide if Woods is even good enough to join the Ryder Cup team.

Counting out Woods is not recommended, and there might be a roar or two left, but he turns 39 in December, and there is clearly more behind him than ahead. Unless the prospect of cheering on Matt Kuchar, Dustin Johnson, and Jordan Speith thrills you, or unless Rickie Fowler, who was 2 strokes back at the British, can actually win something now and then, the horizon is bleak for regaining passion for the game among the average U.S. sports fan.

It says something about us as a sporting nation that it isn't necessarily the game being played or the level at which it is played that excites us, but those factors have to be coupled with a dominant interest in where the players happen to call home.

Maybe it is just the nature of these times, as all other sports have become moons orbiting the great Planet NFL in the United States. Baseball fans are still numerous but aging rapidly; basketball and hockey fans are loyal but just a step down from that; and then there is everything else. Soccer got a nice boost from the World Cup, but ratings for the MLS remain horrendous.

Tennis interest in this country is sailing in the same ship as golf. Fans of the game are there, but there aren't enough top Americans to make the big tournaments appointment viewing. John Isner is the highest U.S. player on the ATP money list and he's 18th. The next highest, among primarily singles players, is Sam Querrey at 59th. On the women's side, Serena Williams is still among the top 10 in the WTA, but that's it. Venus Williams is 22d and the next American is Sloane Stephens at 28th.

Why the richest nation in the world can't produce a number of elite competitors in the country-club sports of golf and tennis is a mystery that doesn't appear on the brink of being solved. That's the case, however, and interest in those games is suffering as a result.

Even the Tour de France, a decidedly niche event, enjoyed a stateside spike in popularity and interest when Lance Armstrong was climbing on jet-fueled legs to seven straight wins. The race is still entertaining and the countryside still spectacular, but U.S. viewers are much less likely to tune in to see if Vincenzo Nibali can protect his lead in the Pyrenees this week. Maybe they will if Tejay van Garderen, from Bozeman, Mont., makes a legitimate run at Nibali – which he might – but, then again, maybe not.

The fact is that our relatively consistent lines of interest in various sports, non-NFL variety, undulate only when a strong personality arises to spike that interest. Woods is the greatest example of that, but Armstrong was in that category during his day, as was Andre Agassi in tennis and a few others.

Jean-Claude Killy, speaking of his native country, once said that the French don't really like sports, but they love sportsmen. It might be that is true everywhere. A well-played golf match is fine, but much finer if we care about the golfers. And a major tennis championship is compelling (although best-of-five sets for men has to go), but having an American on the court matters a lot.

So, young Rory McIlroy, as good as he sometimes is, won't reanimate the sport of golf in this country among its casual fans. Fowler could perhaps, or even Bubba Watson - although not if he reclaims "Gerry," his given name - but those are longshots.

The tournaments and the matches and games slide past as they do every year, and we note them - but usually not much more than that.

NFL training camps open this week, however, and, well, that's another story.

In fact, that is the only story.


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