As golf prepares for a second straight major without its biggest name, exactly how much does the sport miss Tiger Woods?
Oh, only about as much as you’d miss your lungs if you woke up without them tomorrow.
That acknowledgement of the obvious tends to infuriate Tiger haters and all those who cling to the mistaken belief that no individual can be bigger than the game.
Face it: Woods has been the game for close to two decades now. And nothing—not scandal, injuries or the failure to win a major since 2008—has been able to knock him off that perch.
That will be evident when the television ratings roll in for this week’s U.S. Open at storied Pinehurst No. 2.
Already this year, the Masters learned that its green jacket and all of the other traditions at Augusta National can’t compensate for a missing Tiger. Final-round ratings on CBS plunged 24 percent from 2013 and were the lowest since 2004, according to Golf.com.
To be fair, Phil Mickelson missed the cut at the Masters this year, and when runner-up Jordan Spieth’s game unraveled, it drained the drama from Bubba Watson’s victory. But still, if Tiger had been anywhere on the leaderboard, there's no question that the buzz would have been audible.
Likewise, The Players Championship also took a big ratings hit, one year after Woods won the tournament that many consider the unofficial fifth major. Final-round ratings were down a whopping 54 percent from 2013, according to SportsMediaWatch.com, and they tied for the TPC’s lowest Sunday numbers of the last 15 years.
Again, to be fair, the fourth round had a 90-minute rain delay. But if Tiger had been in the hunt, tons more viewers would have stayed tuned in.
But the impact of Tiger’s absence as he heals from back surgery is about much more than metrics and Nielsen ratings.
Woods’ pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 victories in majors is one of the best and longest-running storylines going in any sport, and it was scheduled to come to life four times this year.
Instead, two more chances for Tiger to gain ground have slipped away. A lot of golf fans would love to see Tiger break that record, and probably just as many are hoping Nicklaus will own it forever. But no one wants to see the final outcome decided by how much time Woods spends in traction.
Even the players, the guys whose tax brackets ascend when Tiger is sidelined, miss him.
"Tiger changed the landscape of golf and how people viewed it," Hunter Mahan told ESPN.com’s Farrell Evans. "He's an important part of this game and you feel it when you're out there. He's a force."
Mahan definitely noticed that force was missing at this year’s Masters, telling Evans, "At Augusta, it looked different, felt different from when he is there. I just didn't see as many fans."
That figures to be the case at Pinehurst, too, where the U.S. Open may find itself just an afterthought as the World Cup begins and the NBA Finals hit crunch time.
According to FoxSports.com, tickets for Thursday’s first round have dipped as low as $54 online, compared to last year’s average price of $285. The 2013 U.S. Open was played near Philadelphia’s metropolis as opposed to Pinehurst’s less populated part of North Carolina, but still...
Make no mistake, golf has had some riveting majors in recent years that didn’t involve Tiger contending for the title.
Seeing Watson get all teary-eyed as he won the 2012 Masters in a playoff choked up even the most hardened fan. Watching legends Mickelson and Ernie Els claim the last two British Opens was also compelling television.
But has any major of the last seven years matched the drama of seeing Tiger win the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines on one leg? In an 18-hole playoff no less?
His victories in 14 majors have created a following every bit as formidable as Arnie’s Army. He single-handedly attracted more African-Americans and other minorities to the game than all the other superstars combined.
And, for better or worse, his off-the-course meanderings even caught the attention of the TMZ crowd. Yes, in a country-club sport that values unbendable rules and sparkling images, Tiger was the one guy who could put golf in the gossip columns. (With help from ex-wife Elin Nordegren and current flame Lindsey Vonn, of course.)
Golf without Tiger is like peanut butter without jelly, the Yankees without their pinstripes, Beyonce without the dance moves.
It’s why U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson is on record as essentially saying that a spot will be reserved for Tiger on America’s team this summer, as long as he has a detectable pulse.
And although they’ll never admit it, the folks who miss Woods the most are the Tiger haters. Nothing polarizes sports fans like a dynasty, and Tiger has been one all by himself.
They’ve also relished seeing the last 23 majors pass without a Woods victory, but that experience is so much better for them when he comes up short. It's kind of hollow when he’s stuck in rehab.
Young lions like Rory McIlroy, Adam Scott and Rickie Fowler simply lack the charisma to fill the void left by Tiger, and without him in the field the hottest debate topic is (yawn) long putters.
For golf, life without Tiger is a lot like what the NBA went through without Michael Jordan, only worse.
Consider this: Jordan wasn’t on an NBA championship team until his seventh season, and his 15-year career included a final two in Washington that didn’t count for much. As dominant as MJ was, he had to share the stage with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Hakeem Olajuwon, among others, along the way.
Woods turned pro in 1996 and was almost instantly golf’s resident superhero. He won his first Masters in 1997, and from 1997 to 2009, he was the PGA’s Player of the Year 10 times. Mickelson has elbowed his way into the spotlight, but attention for Lefty or anyone else always diminishes rapidly any time Tiger gets his sizzle going.
So how long until Tiger’s adorers and haters get their next fix? That’s golf’s big question.
His back surgery was March 31, his last competition was March 9 in the WGC-Cadillac Championship, and last month he said doctors are limiting him to chipping and putting so far.
"That's one of the more frustrating things," Woods told reporters during the May 19 media day for his Quicken Loans National tournament. "There's no date, no timetable. Just taking it day by day and trying to get stronger. I want to play today, and that's just not going to happen."
Tiger added that once doctors turn him loose he could get in competitive shape in a couple of weeks, but that might be optimistic for a guy whose body keeps going snap, crackle, pop.
We’ll hear from him again when the National is played June 23-29 at the Congressional Country Club, but unless there’s a sudden surge of good news, it seems iffy that he’ll make it to the July 17-20 British Open at Royal Liverpool.
That could downgrade one more major to a minor.
Tom Weir covered the Masters and British Open as a columnist for USA Today.
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