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Dan O’Neill: Poor ratings for Open are sign of the times in golf

By Dan O’Neill St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT) • Dec 17, 2015 at 6:40 PM

Golf is in a weird place right now.

Television ratings for the 2014 US Open were awful. NBC, which now passes the U.S. Open torch to Fox, went out with a burp. According to Golf.com, the overnight rating for Martin Kaymer’s lopsided win at Pinehurst was a 3.3.

In short, there were roughly more people sucking down IPA’s at Ballpark Village in St. Louis on Sunday than tuning into the final round of the U.S. Open. Or something like that.

A number of factors might explain the lack of interest. The factors start with Tiger Woods and the crossover, numbers-pumping fans he brings to the table. Woods is no longer the best player in the world, just one of them. But he’s still the recognizable player for a lot of people, still the name that makes the needle jump.

If Phil Mickelson is engaged, it’s different. The TV personalities did their best to make Mickelson relevant, describing him in sympathetic terms. Never mind that he was being linked to such great Americans as Carl Icahn and William “Billy” Walters, or that he was being investigated for possibly making millions of dollars illegally. The commentators had him confused with a war hero.

Despite efforts to paint Mickelson in those warm tones, “Phil the Thrill” was not a contender. He’s had a rough season thus far, clearly defined at Pinehurst. Putting stokes aren’t like Swiffers. It’s not a good sign if you’re changing them out each day. At age 44 now, one has to wonder what “Lefty” has left.

Keep in mind the 3.3 number at Pinehurst represented a 46-percent drop from 2013 at Merion, when Mickelson was a story, before Justin Rose prevailed. And the Masters had a 7.8 overnight, which suggests the absence of Woods alone did not bring out the crickets. Rory McIlroy stormed the castle with an opening-round 66 and a wire-to-wire romp in 2011. Still, the overnight was 5.1 that June, considerably better than Pinehurst.

So yes, Woods’s absence is significant. And a German fellow named Martin Kaymer simply doesn’t have the star power of a few others – however modest – to make a matter-of-fact conclusion more compelling. If you’re not going to have Woods on the screen, if you’re not going to have a person of interest involved, you better at least have a competition. After Kaymer shot 65-65 the first two days, the 2014 U.S. Open had none of the above.

Golf is in a weird place. It’s a place where there is not much romance and precious little drama. When a player like Kaymer begins the final round of a major championship with a five-shot lead, there is almost no chance someone is going to do something special to catch him. He may collapse under his own weight – see Adam Scott and 2012 British Open — but he won’t be hunted down.

The concept of the “Sunday charge” is simply obsolete. Johnny Miller, doing his last U.S. Open telecast for NBC, referenced as much. Miller shot a 63 in the final round to win the Open at Oakmont. These days, that kind of valor doesn’t take place.

‘‘I keep waiting for the Sunday charge from this generation of golfers,” Miller said at one point. “Haven’t seen it.’’

It’s hard to say why. But year after year, players near the top of the leaderboard on Sunday at a major assume the fetal position. The only “charge” at Pinehurst was issued by the state highway patrol, which charged Roger Maltbie’s golf cart driver with felony assault. There have been four wire-to-wire winners at a U.S. Open over the last 40 years, three of them have come in the last 12 championships. There were 11 rounds under par on Sunday at Pinehurst, including a 66. None of them were carded by the 12 players directly behind Kaymer coming into the final round.

Even Woods, with his remarkable 14 major championships, has never won one from behind. It’s hard to explain why so many talented people, who have won big tournaments at various other levels, so such little gumption on major championship Sundays. There are many first-time winners in the majors these days, few second-timers.

The USGA did its part. It presented a wonderful Pinehurst No. 2, with reasonable fairways, zero rough and lots of room for spectacular recoveries. It moved tees up for drive able par-4s, to create more risk-reward drama. It lit the fuse, but there were no fireworks.

Golf is in a weird place right now, but perhaps it’s cerebral. Veteran local broadcaster Skip Irwin used to sign off by saying, “It takes a real winner to be a good loser.” On today’s PGA Tour, you can be a real winner by being a good loser, literally.

In short, you don’t have to actually win to make a lot of money, you just have to come reasonably close a few times.

Big-league golf is a tough nut to crack, a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to be sure. There are 32 teams in the NFL that carry 53-man rosters, or almost 1,700 players at any given time. There are 30 major league baseball teams with 25-man rosters, or 650 players at any given time.

The PGA Tour has a full-time “roster” of 125 players, so the money we’re talking about here makes sense proportionately. In today’s world, if you can be one of the few, the proud, the PGA Tour card carriers, you are guaranteed to make big money. This is not a knock, but it is certainly different than it used to be.

Take Scott Langley. In his second season, Langley has yet to win a PGA Tour event. He has been third twice – his top performances — and he has been top-25 seven times. Last year, Langley ranked 127th on the money list; this year he currently is 90th. That said, he has more than $1.4 million in earnings.

He’s having a good season, one that has put him in solid position to keep his playing status for next season. That’s terrific for Langley, who is easy to root for. In 22 events this season, Langley has made nearly $774,000.

In 1980, Mark McCumber finished 90th on the money list while playing in 30 events. He made just over $36,000.

Twenty-five years ago, only the top players were making bank, only the players who were winning. The rest were more like starving artists, playing for the love of the game to be sure, but also playing for their livelihoods.

That’s not to suggest anyone is laying down or not committed to winning championships and majors. But it stands to reason, even if subconsciously, there is a difference between “want to” and “need to.”

Is that why so many fall so short on Sundays at the majors? Not sure. But the lack of personalities and lack of drama has professional golf in a weird place.

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