July 24, 2014

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Commentary: Without Tiger, interest in golf disappears

He gave us one of the most memorable golf tournaments you’ll ever see, winning the U.S. Open on one leg.
Then he took the rest of the golf season away.
In just a few short days, golf went from prime time to who cares. There are two major championships and the Ryder Cup left, but without Tiger Woods around it won’t be must-see TV anymore.
Think the PGA Tour had trouble selling the FedEx Cup last year? Try getting people to change channels from the NFL when the only player anyone really wants to see is sitting at home in Florida playing with his toddler daughter.
Put an asterisk next to the winner of the British Open and PGA Championship because those are both tournaments Woods likely would have won had he been healthy and able to play. Add another to the golfer who wins player of the year, because that was always going to be Woods, too.
As for the Ryder Cup? Well, it should be a friendly little competition down in Louisville in September. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait to see Justin Leonard and Stewart Cink paired up against Lee Westwood and Robert Karlsson.
Golf once again has been rendered meaningless, leaving us nothing to look forward to the rest of the year other than watching some anonymous millionaires covered in logos win even more millions against other anonymous millionaires covered in logos.
Yes, Rocco Mediate was fun while he lasted, but he could just as easily miss the next five cuts as be in contention on a Sunday once again. And although Phil Mickelson can always be counted on to do something silly like play one of the most important tournaments of his career without a driver in the bag, it doesn’t take much to get our fill of Phil.
Commissioner Tim Finchem should be paying close attention, because this is a glimpse of the future for the PGA Tour. There will come a day in the not-too-distant future that Woods will quit playing competitive golf altogether, and that day will be a bleak one indeed.
Tour spokesman Ty Votaw admitted as much Wednesday when asked what losing Woods for the rest of the year means.
“We’re not going to sugarcoat the fact there will be fallout in certain areas,” Votaw said. “But it will probably be felt in the near term, and less over time as other storylines emerge and other players step into the spotlight.”
The problem is, none of those players is Tiger Woods. That has to make some tournament sponsors and television networks more than a bit nervous about their investments.
If we didn’t realize it before, we’ll have plenty of time now to come to the sobering realization just how rare a gift to sports Woods has been. Only a few athletes (Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan come to mind) have ever been so good and had such a flair for the dramatic that they transcended their sport and became a part of the national consciousness the way Woods has.
He took golf and made it an in thing that you weren’t embarrassed to talk to other sports fans about. He brought minorities to the game who would never have dreamed of putting on plus fours before.
Along the way he made himself and his fellow players richer than they would have ever imagined. If he isn’t already, Woods is on line to soon become the first athlete to earn $1 billion, while the total money up for grabs on the PGA Tour has gone from $70 million when Woods burst on the scene in 1996 to $280 million today.
For all but the most loyal fans of the sport, he is golf.
People who wouldn’t know Vijay Singh from Jim Furyk or Davis Love III from Mike Weir not only know who Woods is but care about what he does. The same people who wouldn’t take a second glance at a television in a bar when golf is on can’t keep their eyes off it when Woods is playing.
He hasn’t yet laid claim to the mantle of greatest player ever, because Jack Nicklaus is still four majors and a lot of second-place finishes ahead. But he will someday, and we’ll all be the better for having seen him in his prime.
His parting gift for this year was a performance far gutsier than anyone ever suspected. Indeed, there was some talk in the press tent, and surely some in the locker room, that Woods was being a bit of a drama queen at Torrey Pines and was milking his recent knee surgery for all it was worth.
Who knew he went against his doctor’s advice and not only played the Open but told the doctor he was going to win it? Who knew he could play 91 holes of brutally tough U.S. Open golf with a torn ACL and two stress fractures of his left tibia and do just that?
Now he’s gone, at least through the rest of the year, and possibly longer. Torn ACLs can be dicey. And it wouldn’t be surprising if Woods, who has always geared his schedule around the majors, doesn’t come back until sometime just before next year’s Masters.
When he does, make sure there’s a new green jacket ready to drape over his shoulders.
Because he is, after all, Tiger Woods.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.