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Spieth & McIlroy’s Google Spikes Are Growing, But Tiger Still Rules – For Now

I’m a big fan of the beta feature in Google Trends which enables you to compare search volumes since 2004 for just about anything, and often use it to add additional insights to our work. (Warning: if, like me, you’re into data, it’s pretty addictive). Recently, it’s also provided a really interesting angle on the end of the Tiger Woods era in golf, and what looks like the beginning of a new era marked by the rivalry between Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth.

For most of his career, Tiger has been the world’s most Googled golfer, as shown by this chart, also shown below, comparing his search volumes since 2004 to those of his nearest rivals – although the most notable feature is of course the huge spike in December 2009 marking Tiger’s disgrace.

You can also see that in the last couple of years the gap between Tiger and his rivals has closed. I’ll come back to that shortly.

Google Trends also enables us to compare how searches for Tiger compare to megastars in other sports. Here he is compared to Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James for example.

So Tiger may have ruled golf, but both before and after his fall his Google search volumes didn’t compare to the biggest stars in bigger sports – if you play around with other big names you get similar results.

But back to the main point. How is Tiger’s apparently inexorable decline in form and the simultaneous rise of Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth reflected in recent Google search volumes? Does Tiger still rule, or is the new McIlroy-Spieth era evident on Google as well as the golf course?

This chart, also seen below, shows how it played out in 2014.

Despite making only seven appearances during the year owing to injury, Tiger was still comfortably the most-searched of the three players on average in 2014, with his biggest spikes both coming from the two majors he appeared in: a missed cut at the US PGA and a 69th place at The Open.

Rory’s average in 2014 was around half that of Tiger, and like Tiger his biggest spikes also came at The Open and the US PGA, but obviously for very different reasons as Rory won both tournaments. His other big spike came in May, caused by his break-up with Caroline Wozniacki and subsequent win at the BMW PGA Championship.

In contrast Jordan Spieth wasn’t really a factor in 2014, except – in a sign of things to come – for a spike for his second place finish on debut at The Masters, where he also outscored McIlroy by seven shots when they played together in the second round.

Fast forward to 2015 and it has of course been Spieth’s year so far, with wins in both majors, The Masters back in April and the US Open earlier this month, which the chart below and here clearly shows.

(Interesting that Spieth’s Masters win generated a much higher spike than his US Open win. This could be for all kinds of reasons, but I suspect the two biggest are the novelty factor of Spieth’s debut major win and the Masters being a bigger deal worldwide than the US Open, as this chart shows.)

What’s also clear is that, driven unquestionably by the media, there is as much interest in Tiger’s poor performances as there is in a great performance by Spieth or McIlroy. For example, Tiger’s missed cut at this year’s US Open generated almost as much search interest as Spieth’s win, and Tiger’s missed cut at last year’s US PGA generated more search interest than McIlroy’s win. Which is why Tiger’s average search volumes are still the highest – although Spieth especially is closing the gap.

So, for now at least, Tiger still rules golf on Google. But not in a good way – and probably not for much longer.

Let’s see whose spikes are biggest at the next major – the biggest of them all – The Open at St Andrew’s.