Tucked into the mid-morning ESPN schedule this past Monday — hidden right around the time the third or fourth rerun of SportsCenter would normally have played — was a live broadcast of golfing great Arnold Palmer’s funeral.
In the age of the 24-hour sports news cycle, it is no longer a shock to flip on the TV and see the worldwide leader in sports airing a mind-numbingly irrelevant event with no athletic significance. (Seriously, what have we done to deserve spelling bees, ESPN?) But this was not one of those broadcasts.
As the casket of one of the most charismatic athletes of all time was carried down the aisle, golf said goodbye to the man who turned their sport into must-watch TV — a man known simply throughout golf as “the King.”
The day was supposed to be about remembering the first publicly recognizable athlete in the sport’s history, but Palmer’s passing was a sobering moment for golf fans for a different reason. It was a reminder that for the first time in the sport’s history, golf’s throne is empty.
Golf’s relationship with its fans is unlike that of any other sport. Come hell or high water, the overwhelming majority of baseball fans will root against the New York Yankees. For the last decade, the New England Patriots have been most notoriously hated team in the NFL. Despite being an electric athlete, a three-time champion and an all-around talented entertainer, LeBron James remains one of the most disliked players in the NBA. In seemingly every sport, Americans love to jeer the best in the league and to boo the crown jewel of the game. But not golf — thanks to Palmer.
Arnie, the first face of the sport, marketed golf to America as a game that came with a dashing and lovable lead man. The sport’s greatest tournament, the Masters, first aired on national television in 1956, and, in the following eight years, Palmer would take home the green jacket four times in front of increasingly larger national audiences.
In a sport that has more than 200 professional individuals competing for the same titles each year and no hometown ties to consumers like other professional sports, fans need someone for whom to cheer. With a charming demeanor and a whole lot of winning, Arnold Palmer was making it so that, contrary to the other sports in America, golf was a game in which it is fun to pull for the most talented man on Earth. When it came to deciding for whom golf’s first fans were going to root, Palmer made it easy: Long live the King.
For almost 60 years, American golf fans have been able to follow Palmer’s blueprint by claiming the era’s best golfer as their own. After Arnold came Nicklaus, the lovable “Golden Bear” who won majors into his forties.
Golfing legend Tom Watson picked up where Nicklaus left off and won PGA player of the year six times from 1977 to 1984. Sir Nick Faldo followed, winning six majors and never disappointed his fans as he finished in the top 20 of every Grand Slam event from 1988 to 1993.
By the time Greg Norman had taken over for Faldo in the ’90s and finished his own run of seven number-one finishes in 11 years, a young Tiger Woods stood ready to take the sport by storm for the next decade and a half. From 1956 to 2008, it all worked like clockwork: seamless transitions from one great to the next so that someone was always seated in golf’s throne.
Since Tiger won his last major, there have been 34 Grand Slam events won by 26 different people. Of the four major winners in 2016, not a single one had previously won a major. Fans are taking notice that no one in the field is sporting the crown, and it’s taking its toll on the game.
Youth and adolescent participation in golf is down more than 20 percent in the last decade. Despite more exposure and marketing, PGA TV ratings have dropped off since the height of the Tiger era. Palmer introduced golf as a sport with a lead actor, but for the last five seasons fans have felt like they have been watching the supporting cast.
From year to year, decade to decade, golf has been able to effortlessly pass the throne on from one generation’s great one the next, each “king” getting to experience the loving embrace from the sport’s loyal subjects. Golf longs for its Arnold Palmer. It’s why despite Tiger’s ugly tabloid-riddled past and no major wins since 2008, the sport’s biggest storyline is his return next season.
Woods will likely play only three to four tournaments, making his return seem like golf’s weak attempt to stir up excitement for the upcoming season. But it is hard to blame fans and pundits alike. For golf, without its king, there are no loyal subjects.
Jimmy McLaughlin is a junior in the College. Upon Further Review appears every other Friday.
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