Life Without Tiger On The PGA Tour

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - June 25, 2008
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It was, without need of useless embellishment or extended prose, one of the most impressive athletic achievements in recent memory - if not in the history of American sports. We’ll let others argue about golf’s merit as a sport and whether or not golfers qualify as athletes. Coming off his third knee surgery and after playing only one round in two months - and that from a cart - Tiger Woods put on the greatest performance of his career while fighting through pain so obvious he was often forced to turn $500 drivers into expensive walking sticks. The achievement became even more impressive in the days that followed.

Known to only a trusted few, Tiger played not only with a knee still weak from cartilage surgery but a torn ACL and double stress fracture in his tibia. To do all this while walking a straight line distance of 21.7 miles - and much farther after tracking down sprayed tee shots and the constant circling of the greens - makes Tiger 91-hole performance simply mind boggling.

Aperson could go broke quickly betting against Tiger, and even though doctors are predicting a full recovery, nothing is guaranteed. If Woods cannot return to his familiar form, the 37-hole battle with journeyman and good friend Rocco Mediate shifts from historical to legendary. Granted, the worst is unlikely to happen.

Tiger has no concerns about proper HMO coverage and his doctors will be talented and wealthy. But to say he’ll be dominant as ever with absolutely no ill effects would ignore the history of such injuries. It is true that many athletes have returned from serious knee injury, but many, if not most, come back forever changed.

Much like Frank Tanana, who once dominated hitters with pure speed only to be forced to learn the art of the breaking ball after injuries took away his strength, Tiger, upon his return, may have to change his swing to limit the massive amount of torque he puts on his newly reconstructed knee. The good news is that no one is more capable of making such a dramatic shift. He did that very thing four years ago to limit the stress on his knee and became an even better golfer.

So, for the time being, the news is relatively positive for the world’s No. 1 golfer.

His tour, however, may not be so lucky.

No other sport’s success is so tied into a single person. It’s simple. As goes Tiger, so goes the PGATour. According to the New York Times, TV numbers a year ago dropped 29 percent when Woods took the week off. His presence means huge gates and great interest. A lack of Tiger sightings means greater disinterest. The tour must learn how to live without Woods a decade before it ever hoped.

Commissioner Tim Finchem has some selling to do. He needs to find a way to lure in a portion of Tiger’s massive audience. There is no way he’s going to get all of them and that’s going to be a challenge for a sport with a general household recognition of one athlete.

The tour is not without talent or interesting characters, as Rocco proved. It is, however, short of top-ranked Americans - and that’s what matters to the U.S. audience upon which the tour depends. Internationally, it will be easier. Phil Mickelson is immensely popular, but he’s one of only three Americans in the top 10 of the world golf rankings. The other is Jim Furyk.

An additional problem the tour must overcome is trying to convince the public that all future wins this year are not tainted by the absence of the man who will likely retain his top spot in the rankings even if he doesn’t tee it up until the spring of 2009. Mickelson, with three majors, will be able to escape such criticism but any member of the “best-to-have-never-won-a-major” will be doomed to the same second guessing and dismissals that the Houston Rockets received after winning two titles during Michael Jordan’s absence.

Tiger, like him or not, will be missed. No one generates greater buzz or makes more impossible shots than he. It is now the tour’s job to let you know the well is not dry. Good luck with that.

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