MARANA, Ariz. — A deafening roar returns Wednesday to the tranquil world of professional golf — and for the sport, it arrives not a moment too soon.
Tiger Woods, the world’s No. 1 golfer and a megawatt global star whose participation in a tournament can mean millions more TV viewers and incalculable buzz for the sport, returns to competitive golf for the first time since his epic victory in the U.S. Open last June.
When he tees off in the Accenture Match Play Championship here, just north of Tucson, Woods will end an eight-month break that followed reconstructive surgery on his left knee — the longest interruption in his 13-year career.
Woods’ layoff felt even longer for the PGA Tour, the organization that operates the main professional tournaments in the USA.
Television ratings, ticket sales, media coverage and general interest in golf have declined significantly since Woods was forced to miss the second half of last season and the first 20% of 2009. The Tour remains on solid financial footing, but the worldwide recession is raising doubts about crucial sponsorship agreements for about 20 tournaments whose deals are set to expire in 2010 — including 10 from the battered automobile and financial services industries.
U.S. Bank, for example, has announced it no longer will sponsor the Tour’s stop in Milwaukee after this year. Also, on Tuesday, when the Tour announced an agreement with Accenture to extend its sponsorship through 2014, it also revealed that FBR Capital Markets will cease sponsorship of the Phoenix stop after 2010.
Meanwhile, Tour officials are pursuing new sponsorship deals with companies in the energy, retail and environmental industries to try to make up for a potential exodus of sponsors.
Since Woods, 33, limped away after his third U.S. Open win, 14th major championship and 65th Tour victory, the Dow Jones industrial average has plunged from a closing of 12,269 that June day to 7,351 on Tuesday. Gone are billions of dollars in Americans’ wealth — and some of the disposable income that helped golf flourish during Woods’ rise to stardom.