Networks lose golden golfer to knee surgery

Tiger Woods is hurting, but the TV networks may share his pain.

The reigning U.S. Open golf champ announced Tuesday that he will undergo surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left knee. He also suffered a double stress fracture in his left tibia two weeks before the Open, in which he played against doctors’ advice. Woods has had three previous surgeries on the knee. The Open was his first tournament in two months since having surgery to clean out cartilage in the knee two days after the Masters in mid-April.

He will be off the course for six to eight months, missing at least the remainder of this season, including the British Open, the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup.

There is arguably no athlete so closely tied to the ratings success of his sport than Woods. And his departure is a tough pill to swallow for those networks hoping to cash in on the excitement and ratings he brought to NBC in his 91-hole win over Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines on Monday.

The extra 19 holes garnered a 7.6 household rating/20 share (from 2-4:45 p.m. ET) for the Peacock, a 90% increase over the last time an extra round was needed in the U.S. Open and the highest Monday numbers in 30 years. When the players reached the 18th hole, the numbers peaked at an 11.5 rating/21 share.

Sunday’s ratings were impressive as well. The six-hour coverage earned a 7.5/17 (equating to roughly 12.1 million viewers), up 17% over last year’s final round, when Woods finished behind Angel Cabrera.

Also, the portion of the Open playoff on ESPN was the most-watched golf telecast in cable TV history, drawing 4.7 million viewers.

Woods, 32, has never missed one of golf’s major tournaments in his career. And he has been the primary reason why the sport has seen a ratings resurgence in recent years.

Looking at the major tournaments of the last five years, for example, those won by Woods averaged 8.5 million viewers, while those in which any other golfer won averaged 6.6 million.

The absence of Woods in any tournament can make a big difference, especially with the casual viewer who’s not a diehard golf fan. Early May’s Players Championship — an event often considered the fifth major — drew an average of 3.55 million viewers over the four days, down 15% from the 4.16 million from 2007, when Woods participated.

Woods was next supposed to play in the Buick Open (June 26-29) and Washington, D.C.’s AT&T National, a tournament he hosts, the week after. Both air on CBS.

The Eye and cabler TNT also have the PGA Championship, the year’s fourth and final major tournament, in early August. Last year’s PGA, in which Woods won, registered a 5.2/13. When Vijay Singh triumphed in 2004, the same event earned a 3.6/8.

“We have nine more golf events on our schedule, with three that were predicted to have Tiger playing,” said CBS Sports spokeswoman LeslieAnne Wade. “The golf marketplace is so healthy right now that advertisers who buy golf know all events aren’t going to include Tiger Woods. We’re sold out for the rest of the year. But, obviously, you’d rather have him there and in contention than not being there.”

Advertisers dismayed over not having Woods in their pre-bought tournaments may be allowed additional spots, especially if the ratings are below those same events of last year in which Woods participated.

Golf’s other major, the British Open — set for July 17-20 — airs on both TNT and ABC. Last year’s event, won by Padraig Harrington, earned a 3.1/10. In 2005 and ’06, both years that Woods won, ABC registered a 4.2/13 and 3.9/12, respectively.

ABC’s lead golf announcer, Mike Tirico, said: “I think it is a huge impact, not just for the British but for the PGA Championship and the PGA Tour. No sport, even the NBA during the height of the (Michael) Jordan days, saw its imprint on the sports world tied to one man like Tiger and golf right now.”

In addition to the majors, NBC is set to broadcast the Ryder Cup — where assembled teams from the U.S. and Europe square off against each other — in September.

“It’s obviously a big loss for the sport and for the fans,” said NBC Sports spokesman Brian Walker. “However, the events left on our schedule, the Ryder Cup and FedEx Cup playoff events in the fall, are events that will feature the best players and stand on their own.”

(Rick Kissell and the Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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