Last year it was a celebration of the future of golf as Jordan Spieth led wire-to-wire and 17 million viewers followed along on CBS while he cruised to a record-tying victory.
This year, with the defending champion again leading through three rounds and by five strokes after nine holes of the final 18, the Sunday TV audience was smaller, maybe expecting a rerun from 2015. Instead, viewers watched as Spieth demonstrated how swiftly cruel golf can be.
According to initial results from The Nielsen Company, approximately 13.9 million Americans tuned in to the final half hour of the telecast, making it the most watched program in Sunday’s prime time, though down from last year’s final round Masters ratings.
The average rating for the entire final day on CBS was 8.5, down 11 percent compared to last year when Spieth tied the all time scoring record and won his first major.
After Spieth spent the front nine building his five stroke lead this year, most viewers no doubt were expecting him to win his second straight green jacket with no drama. Then, over a surprising 50-minute stretch of agonizing and uncharacteristic golf from Spieth, viewers instead watched as England’s Danny Willett emerged from the pack to win the first major of his career.
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This year’s Masters was the most popular program on TV Sunday night, edging Little Big Shots 2.5 to 2.0 in the key 18 – 49 age group. The tournament was also a strong lead-in for 60 Minutes on CBS which came on 30 minutes late because of the Masters, but was still up 40% compared to last week’s program rating.
The only other sports on the broadcast networks’ prime time schedule over the weekend was a NASCAR race on Fox Saturday night; the race averaged 4.3 million viewers, not even a third of the Masters prime time rating.
International ratings for the Masters aren’t publicly available, though in Willett’s native England, the action was broadcast on BBC and took place in prime time, finishing before midnight in London. With England’s Lee Westwood and Paul Casey also on the leaderboard Sunday, Willett’s come from behind victory was certain to have been highly watched–from British living rooms to Scottish pubs.
Not all the viewers were looking at TV screens. And no ratings or visitor traffic numbers are available on the various Masters streaming and specialty option sites with video of featured groups or specific holes.
Likewise, TV DVR audience ratings won’t be known until later this month. This alternative viewership eats into the main CBS broadcast coverage audience totals for the tournament somewhat – in the same way that all television audiences are down over the last few years because of competition from web-based video.
Masters ratings history, like golf, is an up-and-down world: for most of the last two decades ratings have been high when Tiger Woods is winning or in serious contention, and relatively low when Tiger doesn’t play or doesn’t play well.
Last year when Spieth won wire-to-wire over fan favorite Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose and Woods finished in the top-20, the Masters averaged 17.7 million viewers on Sunday. The previous year when Woods didn’t play and Bubba Watson was the winner, only 11.1 million watched, the lowest Sunday ratings since 1993.
This year, again without Woods, the first and second round audience for ESPN’s coverage improved from Thursday to Friday.
The first round TV coverage (which opened with Spieth nearly finished) averaged around 2.4 million viewers while Friday’s second round (with Spieth’s 18 holes live) averaged just over 3 million. In addition, there are approximately another one million viewers for ESPN’s late night repeat broadcasts each evening.
Still, in what went from looking like a stress-free Masters victory for Spieth’s third win in the last five majors to a collapse of historic proportions, (despite starting six strokes ahead, Greg Norman was only 2-up on Nick Faldo after nine holes of the final round in 1996) there is a lesson to be learned by the golf-watching public.
Fans who didn’t see the final round because they didn’t think it would be exciting need remember one truism that predates Spieth’s collapse on 10, 11 and 12 and Willett’s birdies on 13, 14 and 16 that gave him the win: the Masters doesn’t really begin until the final nine holes on Sunday.
And only then if you’re tuned in.