In the aftermath of one of the most dramatic major golf championships ever came the realization that the game of golf was going to be without its superstar for quite some time.
I'll never forget watching The Golf Channel last June after the roar at Torrey Pines had subsided and golf writers around the globe sounded off in unison about the impending effects of a Tigerless sport. With gas eclipsing $4 a gallon and the market hitting the skids, many agreed that the game of golf and especially the PGA Tour were in for an economy-fueled disaster. The golf community has no doubt been rattled by a few devastating shockwaves since Tiger was last scene on the links.
For instance, according to the National Golf Foundation, the number of new courses expected to open in the United States in 2008 is the smallest in 20 years. More courses are scheduled to close this year (nearly 100) than the 80 expected to open, though the closures have fallen since almost 150 were shut down two years ago.
The golf construction boom of the 1990s—when about 2,500 new courses (mostly daily fee ones) were added to the 13,000 or so already extant in the U.S.—is not only over; it’s stuck in reverse.
Meanwhile, the LPGA Tour has taken a big hit as well. In November, the tour announced that it will offer three fewer tournaments in 2009, all because of sponsorship loss. Prize money also will dip by about $5 million.
Then a few weeks ago at the FBR Open in Scottsdale, Ariz., it became discouragingly clear that the top dog PGA Tour was also feeling the heat. Many of the corporate tents that lined the 18th hole in years past had been have been replaced with good old fashioned open space.
Then in the midst of the immense economic pressure threatening this great game, a funny thing happened: golf got really interesting.
All of a sudden golf was compared to an NBA with no LeBron, MLB with no A-Rod, and an NFL with no Tom Brady (which subsequently happened anyway). Without the world's No.1-ranked player expected to be out for the better part of a year, fans, writers, and golf personalities alike scoured the scene to figure out who was going to pick up the pieces in the absence of Tiger.
Well, folks, he's due to be back any day now so I thought I'd take this time to give you five reasons why golf has survived and even thrived at times without its fearless leader.
1. Who's No. 2?!
It's no secret to anyone who follows golf in the slightest to know that Tiger Woods is by far and away the best player on the planet, and probably all time.
However, when he hobbled away from Torrey Pines that fateful June day, everybody wanted to know who was going to be the solid No. 2 and thus be king in Tiger's absence. Most people argue that it's Phil Mickelson aka "Lefty." That used to be a fair argument, but here is the ugly truth: his last win in a major came at the 2006 Masters, almost three years ago!
Since then, all he's managed to do was slice a ball off a merch tent, start rockin' those cute mock neck shirts, and play the opening round of the U.S. Open without a driver in his bag. Granted, he won The Players in 2007 but if he were the clear cut No. 2 he would be in contention in the four majors and WGC events, not just in the so-called "fifth major."
Another argument was made for Spaniard Sergio Garcia. He will forever be linked to Woods since he was seen prancing along the fairway at Medinah in the PGA almost 10 years ago. The bad news: He didn't win a major that day and he still doesn't have one.
Sure, he came close in 2007 at the British when Padraig Harrington left the door wide open, but the Spaniard's putt lipped out and so did his chances at winning the tournament as he was beaten in a playoff. Then in August at Oakland Hills, Padraig broke Sergio's heart again with clutch putt after clutch putt down the stretch. Sergio was left to do nothing more than display a sour grapes attitude in the press room with his little "why does everything bad always happen to me?" speech.
It's pretty simple, Serg, like the great Harry Vardon once said, "There are only two types of player—those who keep their nerves under control and win championships, and those who do not.”
If there is one person who clearly did the most to bridge the gap between himself and the injured Woods, it has clearly been Padraig Harrington. Padraig did more than just win the year's final two majors and win Player of the Year on both the PGA and Euro tours. He showed that he is a force to be reckoned with on the back nine due to the fact that the guy has ice water in his veins when he stands over knee-knocking putts.
The only recent chink on Harrington's armor is the fact that he was a dreadful 0-3-1 at the Ryder Cup in the fall.
2. The Rise of The Amateur: Rickie Fowler & Danny Lee
Let's shift gears and talk about two of the most promising up-and-comers the game has seen in quite some time. Rickie Fowler (world amateur No. 3), a sophomore at Oklahoma State University, aka "The Factory," who burst onto the scene after being the youngest member on the victorious U.S. Walker Cup team in 2007.
He followed that up by winning his second consecutive Sunnehanna Amateur championship, making the cut at the U.S. Open in 2008 (finished T60), finishing as the low individual, and helped the U.S. to a runner-up finish in the Eisenhower Trophy, and just recently made the cut at the FBR Open (finished T58). It is still unsure how long he will stay in school and remain an amateur, but the future is very bright for the latest OSU prodigy.
18-year-old Korean-turned-Kiwi Danny Lee (world amateur No. 1) has also broken out onto the amateur scene by having one of the most impressive summer amateur seasons in the last few years. He celebrated his win at the Western Amateur by winning the prestigious U.S. Amateur just a few weeks later at famed Pinehurst No. 2.
The most impressive detail: he became the youngest player to ever win the tournament, beating the previous record held by, you guessed it, Tiger Woods. He has since gone back to New Zealand, where he finished a disappointing T37 at the Eisenhower Trophy, but we will see him again at Augusta in April.
3. Rory McIlroy
The world first caught a glimpse of Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy when he was a baby faced 17-year-old collecting the silver medal as the low-amateur at The Open Championship at Carnoustie. Now he's a pro and fresh off a heart-stopping victory at the Dubai Desert Classic over Super Bowl weekend, in which he faltered down the stretch only to make an extremely difficult up-and-down to clinch the trophy.
Mark O'Meara had this to say about McIlroy: "It's hard to compare anyone with Tiger because of his mind and heart, that's such a big element, but certainly Rory has those qualities. Ball-striking wise, at 19 Rory is better than Tiger was at that age. His technique is better. Certainly Tiger has developed his game and modified his swing over the years to be able to hit the ball pin-high, but Rory is already doing that at 19."
Wow! And that isn't coming from a hack journalist, that's coming from one of Tiger's closest friends, so it's not like there's any bad intent there. Even though he is a relative unknown in the States, the U.S. will be able to see the world No. 16 player quite bit this year. He is slated to play in the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship at the end of the month, the WGC CA Championship at Doral, and at The Masters.
4. Ryo Ishikawa
To put it bluntly, Ryo Ishikawa is the biggest thing to hit Japan since Hello Kitty. The vibrant 17-year-old dubbed "The Bashful Prince" and his plethora of skills have taken the country by storm. In May 2007, Ishikawa became the youngest winner ever of a men's regular tournament on the Japan Golf Tour by winning the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup at the age 15 years and 8 months!
Ishikawa then took time to hone his game as an amateur and in 2008 turned professional. He then went on to win another Japan Golf Tour tournament, the mynvai ABC Championship. I realize that the naysayers will criticize the fact that he hasn't won outside Japan, but a professional win is a professional win, especially at his age.
In any case, Americans won't have to wait any longer to see what all the fuss is about. The current world No. 67 will be teeing it up tomorrow in the Northern Trust Open at Riviera and I would bet a hefty margin that he makes the cut in his first competition on the PGA Tour.
5. U.S. shocks the world and takes the Ryder Cup
For those of you who thought the U.S. were toast leading up to the Ryder Cup, you were not alone. The Yanks were without the world No. 1-ranked player, they were grossly inexperienced, and Padraig Harrington was on the other team.
Perhaps the only positives for the U.S. were the fact that it was on home soil at a very "Americanized" course in Valhalla, they had Kentucky natives Kenny Perry and J.B. Holmes, and frankly, they had absolutely nothing to lose. In fact, almost everyone expected them to lose.
Granted, this wasn't "The Miracle on Turf," but it definitely sent shock waves through the golf world when the U.S. virtually dominated this competition from start to finish. In the end, what we saw that September weekend in Kentucky was the perfect storm of young, raw talent stepping onto a massive stage and playing lights-out golf.
Anthony Kim showed nerves of steel and Hunter Mahan displayed some of the finest ball striking in recent memory. Paul Azinger followed his instincts, did his homework, and took his medicine. In the end, he pressed all the right buttons and put his team in a position that gave them opportunities, which they capitalized on en route to a stunning 16.5-11.5 victory.