The game is missing the old Woods
Throughout more than a decade of mastery, Tiger Woods operated behind a veneer of confidence that left some golfers quaking in their spiked shoes, and others aiming no higher than second place.
After the rare round in which he fell shy of his stratospheric expectations, Woods was inclined to dismiss it, laying the blame on bad luck. Or it was nothing that a few hours on the driving range or the practice green would not resolve.
He was hardly the type to let his veil of self-assurance slip, exposing any vulnerability that would give other golfers hope.
So it was jarring when Woods spoke like the mortal he has become after missing the cut by six strokes in the recent US PGA Championship. He was buried at 10 over par.
"Frustration, disappointment," was how Woods depicted his emotions. "Now I have nothing to do but work on my game. I thought I could come in here and … get it done, but I need some work."
His words, combined with his scorecards, are the latest sign of a fresh, less dictatorial era in professional golf.
The last 13 majors titles have been won by 13 individual players.
The over-30 golf demographic that has been under the heel of Woods can seize the moment, and the talented 20-somethings are lined up from the pro shop to the first tee, eager for a chance to pick up the baton dropped by Woods.
None of them fear him.
Midway through the PGA, his first major, Keegan Bradley acknowledged Woods's presence but described it as "fun" and "cool" - quite the opposite of "intimidating".
"I do feel very comfortable out here," Bradley said. "It's always so much fun to be out here. I'm finishing up and Tiger is on [the first hole]. He's one of my idols. It's cool to look around and see all these guys I've looked up to my whole life."
Two days later, those guys were looking admirably at Bradley as he was handed the first-prize cheque.
While behaving like the 25-year-old rookie he is, snapping a photograph of the Wanamaker Trophy at a news conference, Bradley said: "The top players are not dominating like they were, which I think is great for the Tour. I think it gives an opportunity for a player like me to win this thing. It's as deep as it's ever been, and I think it's only getting deeper."
The golf hierarchy might not share Bradley's enthusiasm, certainly not in America. The void left by Woods is taking a cheek-filling bite out of television viewership.
On Sunday, the American TV audience for the final round of the PGA was down 14 per cent from the year before (when Woods was playing but not in contention), and down 43 per cent from 2009 (when Woods was the runner-up and warranted considerable airtime).
Ratings for the final rounds of the British and US Open this summer matched or flirted with their historical lows, as well.
Those two events shared a burden: Woods missed both from the start. If the old Woods has not been replaced by someone else - even a new Woods - by this time next year, television contract negotiators for the US PGA Tour will be buried in a sand trap in talks with the networks.
Other pockets on the planet are not bemoaning Woods's free-fall nearly as much. Bradley ended a run of six successive grand slam events won by European Tour regulars, book-ended by Phil Mickelson winning the 2010 Masters. Six of the leading eight players in the world golf rankings come from outside the US.
Before Bradley interrupted the Euro-Africa streak, David Toms, a 13-times winner of the PGA Tour, of the US, suggested his nation's dry spell in majors cannot be written off as a cyclical shift of power.
In their late teens and early 20s, he said, US golfers are reading university textbooks as well as reading greens. While the system offers the benefits of a higher education, the Europeans, South Africans, Australians, et al, are plunging earlier into the pro life and gaining a head start.
"They are used to winning a lot in other countries and other tours around the world, so they are not scared" in the majors and other PGA Tour events, Toms said. "They feel comfortable."
Among the recent majors winners, Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland wields the most upside. In between fellow countrymen Graeme McDowell's triumph in the 2010 US Open and Darren Clarke taking the latest British Open, McIlroy almost won this year's Masters and pulled away at the US Open. (The continuous golf party in Northern Ireland is just now winding down.)
"I feel comfortable in these events," McIlroy, just 23, said at the PGA, "and the win this year in the US Open will give me a lot of confidence going into them again next year."
McIlroy exudes a no-worries, no-excuses personality the public will embrace if he can follow up his breakthrough campaign with another gem. Here is a glimpse: as he strolled toward the scorer's shed on Saturday at the PGA, McIlroy passed by Chubby Chandler, his manager.
"How is it?" Chandler asked about the wrist that McIlroy, overcome by youthful impetuousness, injured with a risky shot up against tree roots during his first round.
McIlroy turned and said, "It's all right. I wish it were worse to give me an excuse."
Golf, like any sport, craves rivalries and larger-than-life champions. Woods was so overwhelming that - other than him versus Mickelson, which never quite lived up to billing - rivalries were hard to come by. And he towered over other players, making them seem small by comparison.
What tennis has, golf could use. The guys in shorts and headbands have thrived, by comparison, from the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal tug-of-war for supremacy. With the inevitable onset of middle age for Federer, the emergence of Novak Djokovic has maintained tennis' momentum.
Golf, by nature, requires more time for such storylines to develop. Nobody has filled the Tiger void. Not until someone, such as McIlroy, jumps in can captivating rivalries flourish.
It might take a while. As Bradley said: "Everybody out here is so good now. From the last guy in to the first guy can win."
If that translates to different winners each week, remote controls will continue to click from golf to other programmes, at least in America.
Given the preference of having a Woods-ian figure rule the tour or having the wealth spread, many golfers at the PGA Championship expressed ambivalence. Their thoughts were shaped somewhat by a general like of, or respect for, Tiger - sometimes both - so none is inclined to dance on his temporary grave.
Low scores do not guarantee thrills. Still, a statistical argument can be made that Woods was the rising tide lifting all ships. The annual average round on the PGA Tour has been steadily climbing, up this season to 71.04.
"I think it's exciting when there's a lot of different winners, and I think it's exciting when there's a dominant player," Lee Westwood said. "You can't say that when Tiger was winning lots of majors that it was boring or dull. It was exciting to watch and see what he would do next. I think it's healthy for the game both ways.
"I think depending on who you are and what your idea is, some people are not going to like it when there's not somebody dominant, and others are not going to like it when it's predictable."
Luke Donald, whose background - reared in England, schooled in America - allows him an unusual perspective, also sees both sides of the argument.
"I think the fans always enjoy the hero, the one player that does dominate, who they can cheer for," he said. "But there are obviously people out there who enjoy seeing a bit more variance and variety - that other people have a chance to win."
"There's been a lot of shuffling around in the world golf rankings, and I'm sure that's good for the sport as well."
Donald pondered the issue more before deciding: "I'm not sure which is better. I'd probably sway with [having] one person dominating. I think it brings more to the sport."
Taking the optimistic position is Adam Scott, the Australian who has a distinct point of view. He cashed in on Woods's woes by picking up his jettisoned caddie, the respected Steve Williams.
"The state of the game is in a really interesting place right now," Scott said. "We've seen a lot of great stories with some really high-quality players who are living up to their potential … The competition is strong at the moment. It's exciting to watch."
Observers might ask how interesting golf really is when the media devotes considerable time discussing the prospects for a "Chubby Slam" Chandler being the manager for the three previous majors champions.
Woods, it can be argued, made golf a bigger and more lucrative game, his retreat provides a reminder that in sports, like everything else, nothing is forever. Change happens. Transitional periods must be weathered.
Golf's best-case scenario might be for Woods to rebuild his wall of confidence, and return with his swing and zest for the game intact.
And for the best of the rest to have become emboldened during his slump, then make him the pursuer as often as he is the pursued.
The PGA Tour will need players such as Bradley willing to step up to Woods. Or step over him, if that is the case.
"I hope I don't disappear," the young winner said. "I don't plan to."
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Published: August 27, 2011 04:00 AM