Woods' return vital for PGA Tour

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There are signs that life is returning to normal -- if that word can ever really be used again in regards to Tiger Woods and the PGA Tour.

The game's No. 1 player and attraction was first off on Wednesday morning in the Quail Hollow Championship pro-am, Woods taking his customary spot at the front of the line in the dew-sweeping hours of the tournament's preliminary event -- although the media's inside-the-ropes access was limited.

Afterward, there was a brief news conference, with most of the questions pertaining to golf -- although access to the interview room was limited.

And on Thursday morning, Woods plays his first post-scandal round in a regular PGA Tour event after tying for fourth three weeks ago at the Masters, where television ratings were the best in nine years.

Ultimately, it is numbers such as those that heighten the desire to get Woods back to playing golf and moving away from the disclosures of infidelity that caused him to take an indefinite leave from the game.

Because, despite any perceived baggage that Woods now carries, there is no denying his impact. And his absence was clearly bad for business.

"He brings the casual fan and the non-golf fan, someone who is there for the atmosphere," said John Kaczkowski, president and CEO of the Western Golf Association, which runs the BMW Championship, where Woods celebrated his most recent PGA Tour victory -- the 71st of his career -- in September.

"What you get with him is someone [a fan] who wants to see one of the most famous athletes in the world. When he doesn't play, and fans are used to seeing him, I think a little bit of the buzz gets knocked out of the tournament. With him, you get more reporters, more television cameras. You get more than the core golf fan."

And that is what the PGA Tour covets. Woods brings more eyeballs to television sets and more spectators to events than any other player, including reigning Masters champion Phil Mickelson.

"Tiger is driving the bus as far as the buzz factor goes," said NBC TV analyst Dottie Pepper, a former player on the LPGA Tour. "Phil is driving the mini bus. There is buzz with Phil, but it's just not the same."

That is why tournaments that had Woods competing in 2007 then didn't in 2008 due to his season-ending knee injury saw a 46.8 percent drop in their television ratings, according to data from the Nielson Company.

It was particularly stunning at the season-ending FedEx Cup playoff events, where all-star fields were assembled in the quest for a $10 million bonus.

For the first time starting in 2007, the PGA Tour had a meaningful end to the season and all of the top players competing. But when Woods missed the competition due to his knee injury in 2008, ratings at the last two playoff events fell more than 60 percent for the Saturday rounds of competition.

One of those was Kaczkowski's BMW Championship, which Woods had won in 2007.

"We basically left $1 million worth of ticket sales on the table," Kaczkowski said. "I can't prove that number, it's a guess. But from the day he announced [he was done for the year] until the first round of the tournament, we sold [only] $200,000 worth of tickets. Obviously, him not playing had an impact on our ticket sales."

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem acknowledges the boost Woods gives his tour.

But he often points out that Woods typically plays just a third of the events, around 16 or 17 out of a 45-week schedule. And four of those tournaments are major championships, which are not run by the PGA Tour.

Finchem contends that the tour was "not negatively impacted in any significant way" when Woods missed significant time after the passing of his father in 2006 and again during the second half of 2008 after his knee surgery.

Lower television ratings notwithstanding, Finchem said the PGA Tour had a record year in 2008 in prize money distributed and charitable proceeds.

"However, he does generate a significant increase in the overall interest in the sport, no question, and he does increase significantly the number of people that watch on television," Finchem said. "And that plays into our long-term relationships with our television partners and the value of television rights."

And that is why the timing of the Woods fiasco can be viewed from different angles.

In one way, the scandal had a horrible impact on the PGA Tour, given the current economic climate, a handful of title sponsorships for tournaments still unresolved, and that spate of negativity that hung over golf while waiting for Woods to get his life in order.

Yet, the timing of his return gives the tour some time to recover before the next round of television negotiations are set to begin. Its current six-year contracts with NBC and CBS expire at the end of the 2012 season.

"Scandal or not, what I have not seen mentioned by anybody yet is that the television contract negotiations will begin later this year or next year," Pepper said. "It was really important for him to come back, from the tour's standpoint. A lot of money is involved that affects players' pensions. Budgets for every aspect of the tour are driven off the television dollar and what people are willing to pay.

"And unless he's out there on a pretty regular basis that dollar is not going to be the same."

Rights fees for PGA Tour broadcasts work differently than in other major sports, in which the networks pay the leagues for the right to televise events in return for the ability to sell advertising.

The networks pay the PGA Tour as well, knowing that ratings are more about reaching golf's high-end demographics than a massive audience. In turn, title sponsors are required to buy a certain amount of ad time on the broadcasts in order for the networks to contain production costs.

Having Woods around to pursue Sam Snead's record of 82 PGA Tour victories and Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships over the coming years will certainly be an important factor for the tour's negotiating team.

In the short term, his return and subsequent early announcements for Quail Hollow and next week's Players Championship have already produced positive results.

"He committed 10 days in advance of the deadline, which from an operations standpoint, it's a gift," said Jay Monahan, executive director of the Players Championship. "If it wasn't for that, we wouldn't have the energy that's created through the media, through our volunteers, through all of our constituents.

"I really appreciate the fact that he's given us this advance warning. That's going to allows us to increase our charitable number, which leads to our ultimate success."

At the Quail Hollow Championship, Woods' presence was not necessarily imperative for a good week. Saturday's third round had already sold out before Woods committed, and the tournament was well on its way to producing a packed golf course each day.

"But it was pretty incredible once he announced," said Kym Hougham, Quail Hollow's tournament director. "It created a buzz in the community. The stature goes up. More national media were calling. That lead time he gave us was very important. We might have sold out anyway, but he pushed it over quicker."

Woods has a way of doing that no matter where he plays. Nothing new there.

And while things might not ever be quite the same with him, we'll know things are as close to normal as possible when the attention turns to what he's doing on the course.

After all, he enters the Quail Hollow Championship having played two PGA Tour events since his last victory.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.