2004: U.S. Open - Feeding frenzy devours Tiger

Tiger Woods’ alleged “slump” might be less a function of his on-course performance than the product of the golf media needing something – anything – to report on.

Since Woods came on board the PGA Tour in late summer 1996, the growth in media coverage has been nothing less than spectacular. Some of it is Tiger-specific, but that overlaps with an ongoing, long-term expansion in the number of golf-hungry media outlets.

The press tent at major championships is now jammed, not only with traditional sports writers from national magazines and newspapers, but also with a growing legion of staffers from cable TV sports shows, 24-hour news channels and the Internet. Add to that reporters from general interest, nonsports outlets and you have a lot of people looking for something to write or talk about.

From 1934 through 1952, reporters covered The Masters from the clubhouse building or a temporary tent. Not until 1953 was a fixed structure built, referred to as the Quonset hut. At first, the building was about a dozen rows deep, with just enough room to squeeze 10 typewriters across. To accommodate a growing press corps, the Quonset hut was expanded three times – until 1990, when it was torn down to make way for a new press building that was five times larger. During this year’s Masters, that building provided workspace for 1,000 credentialed media, including 400 writers with their own work spaces and separate facilities for photographers and Internet media. And it’s still crowded.

The number of credentialed media at next week’s U.S. Open also has grown “from probably a few hundred in the 1960s to about 1,000 today,” says Craig Smith, USGA director of media relations. That number roughly parallels membership in the Golf Writers Association of America, which started in 1946 as a guild of three dozen wordsmiths, grew to 200 by 1963 and now comprises 900 members.

Smith says he noticed “a considerable spike” in media interest and requests for credentials before the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional. That’s when Tiger Woods, fresh off his record-breaking victory at that year’s Masters, became a worldwide celebrity on a level with Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth.

Woods’ pretournament news conference at Congressional was a media circus, with newcomers to the game raising questions about his eating habits and where he was staying for the week.

To anyone covering that event, it was clear that a new force had descended upon golf, subtly shifting the tone of coverage.

Ron Green Sr., a golf writer for 50 years, recalls an earlier era when only “15 or 20 regulars – and that includes radio guys – showed up to cover a golf tournament.” He says the writers got to know the players better than they do today, in part because of virtually unimpeded access. Neophytes were easy to spot, and still are in the press tent. “You either know golf or you don’t,” Green says. “And if you don’t, it shows.”

A decisive shift came when live coverage by cable networks rendered the live visual image dominant over the printed word. Scribes accustomed to relating the nuances of the game and dissecting details of play were now forced aside as headline coverage made golfers – or at least some of them – into stars worthy of Variety-like coverage.

At the same time, a whole new set of talking heads were descending upon the media center, thanks to newly available time on such emerging outlets as ESPN, CNN, Fox and The Golf Channel. Internet sites and chatrooms also emerged, and with it, golf became subject to around-the-clock, microscopic dissection, analysis and speculation.

Woods is not exactly innocent in all of this. His professional debut in September 1996 at the Greater Milwaukee Open (“Hello World”) was carefully orchestrated by his corporate handlers, preeminently Nike, to exploit his marketability. By year’s end, a gushy article in Sports Illustrated explaining his Sportsman of the Year award proclaimed his God-like status and helped anoint him as head of a corporate juggernaut that was grossing $40 million-plus per year in endorsement fees, making him the highest-paid and most famous athlete in the world. And that was before he won his first major.

Now that he has gone nearly two years without a Grand Slam title, the same interlopers who once cashed in at his feet are now making a living by flailing him.

Another golfer equally dominant in his era, Jack Nicklaus, took a few shots from the media during his minor slumps without majors – from the 1967 U.S. Open to the 1970 British Open; and again from the 1972 U.S. Open to the 1975 Masters. But while Nicklaus faced questions from golf writers, they were writers he knew well and saw week after week, and who understood the rhythms of the game.

Golf coverage, and sports coverage in general, was far more limited three or four decades ago than today. Sports news was confined to five-minute segments at the end of half-hour local telecasts at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. Tournamentcoverage was limited to a few hours on the weekend, plus 15 to 30 minutes of highlights on the evenings of the first and second rounds.

Today, there is round-the-clock coverage, especially on The Golf Channel, which features live telecasts of players’ news conferences, then an hourlong discussion by a panel of post-tournament analysts.

When dissected minutely, anyone’s performance can be found lacking, especially someone who started off in such a lofty fashion as Woods.

It’s a slump most PGA Tour pros would envy. This year, he’s won once, at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, and in late May he was No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index, No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking and No. 3 on the PGA Tour money list. Actually, talk already was rife last year of a Tiger slump, despite a five-victory season and Player of the Year honors.

But of course, he’s not winning majors. After capturing eight majors (and the career Grand Slam) between the 1997 Masters and the 2002 U.S. Open, he’s approaching a two-year drought in the events that really count. No wonder magazine columns, radio talk shows and Internet sites are buzzing with the question: “What’s wrong with Tiger?”

But is it legitimate news, or a story line manufactured to fill print space and airtime?

All news is a matter of story selection and development. Golf reporting and sports are no different. News stories and column ideas result from the product of imaginative, some times fertile and occasionally fanciful reporters, whether traditional prose writers or new-age broadcast and Web journalists. With more reporters than ever roaming about looking to fill more media space than has ever been available, it’s not surprising that small stories, rumors or exaggerated notions become part of the news cycle and start gaining a foothold with the public.

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