Twenty years ago, golf was a niche sport that featured modest purses and catered to a medium-sized fan base. The fans of that time would hardly recognize all of the pomp, circumstance and money that surrounds the men’s game today. Many of the reasons for pro golf’s big bump in prosperity in the new millennium can be traced back to one person: Tiger Woods. This is a man who truly became something larger than his own sport and had fans from all over the world hanging over his every shot.
From the start, Woods was a ratings smash. After winning twice at the tail-end of 1996, he broke through for his first major title at the 1997 Masters; 44 million Americans tuned in, the most ever for a golf telecast. He delivered similarly impressive figures for the next decade or so, and even regular tournaments were significantly buoyed by Woods’ presence. PGA Tour purses began to get bigger and bigger, a reflection of golf’s new popularity. In 1996, Tom Lehman led the PGA Tour in money with $1,780,159. Russell Knox beat that by a thousand dollars this year–and he’s at No. 46 on the money list.
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