Without Tiger Drama, Golf Is Just Golf Again

Remember all those people who vilified and ridiculed Tiger Woods, called him a scumbag and a bimbo-izer and a commercial fraud after his sex scandal? Well, right about now, they’re starting to miss him. And as the Masters proceeds without him for the first time in 20 years, and Jonas Blixt is trying to out duel Matt Every(man) and Joost Luiten for the green jacket, Jim Nantz might be surprised that his “tradition unlike any other’’ has become just another event like all others.

The golfing community never will admit this, nor will the good old boys who run Augusta National. But Woods was bigger than the Masters. Strike me down, Bobby Jones, but having been there when Tiger was producing the finest golf ever played, and having seen the scalpers on Washington Road and the TV ratings on Monday morning after Red Shirt theater on Sunday afternoon, I realize the tournament can’t possibly be the same without him. When he limped away, the Masters lost much of its strut. And while Amen Corner is still there, tucked away in the backwoods, it feels like someone has died this week.

Before Woods annihilated the course and a thick coat of Deep South racism in one historic swoop in 1997, the Masters was the premier event in golf. Since then, it has become one of the grandest theater stages in sports, trailing only the Super Bowl in this country as an annual apppointment-TV spectacle. When he was threatening to win every year with supersonic blasts from the tee box, they “Tiger-ized’’ the course in an attempt to thwart him. When Fuzzy Zoeller hoped aloud that Woods wouldn’t order fried chicken — a Masters winner plans the menu for the next year’s Champions Dinner — it reminded the world how backward Augusta had been for so long. When Woods won four green jackets in nine years, Jack Nicklaus looked right in predicting Tiger would win at least 10 of them. They were interlocked in history, the all-time greatest golfer and the greatest golf course, and we couldn’t get enough.

Now, it’s clear Woods will not be remembered as the all-time best. His career has been rudely derailed — first by a sex scandal that cluttered a psyche once honed to be meticulously focused, then by the cruel breakdown of a body once sculpted to last. The question no longer is whether he’ll win five more majors and beat Jack Nicklaus’ career record of 18. The question is whether he’ll be healthy enough to win one major, healthy enough to avoid premature retirement. He won a staggering 13 majors in 12 seasons, a pace unprecedented in the sport, then succumbed to a succession of injuries that left him ravaged. There was an ACL tear in his left knee in 2007. There was a double stress fracture of his lower left leg, through which he played to win his 14th major at the 2008 U.S. Open, followed by reconstructive knee surgery. There was a right Achilles’ tear in 2009. There was an inflamed neck joint in 2010. There was a knee sprain and recurring Achilles’ problems in 2011. There was a left Achilles’ tendon issue in 2012. Last year, there was an elbow strain. Now there’s the back.

Once, he chased the Grand Slam. Today, he is somewhere far from Magnolia Lane after microdiscectomy surgery, giving him the Gimp Slam for missing all four majors with injuries. It’s almost unbelievable that a man who emphasized fitness like no other would break down in increments, while Phil Mickelson, who often was soft and lumpy in his prime, continues to be healthy and challenge for majors at 43. Nicklaus was being kind the other day when he said Woods still would break his record.

“I feel very bad for Tiger. He’s really worked towards my record. I still think he’ll break my record … as long as he is physically able to do it,’’ Nicklaus said. “He’s 38 years old, and he’s probably got another 10 years at least of being able to compete — that’s 40 more majors to win five of them. It shouldn’t be too difficult. But then again, I’ve always said he’s just gotta do it. It’s gonna be difficult, but if I said anything different I think I would be a jerk. So I think I better say he will do that … and I actually believe that.’’

No, he doesn’t. No one does. Tiger Woods probably doesn’t believe it, either, though he’ll never wave the white flag. In announcing he’d miss the Masters, he said he’s still aiming at the records of Nicklaus and Sam Snead, who has 82 career PGA Tour victories. “It’s tough right now, but I’m absolutely optimistic about the future,” Woods said. “There are a couple (of) records by two outstanding individuals and players that I hope one day to break. As I’ve said many times, Sam and Jack reached their milestones over an entire career. I plan to have a lot of years left in mine.”

As a realist, I prefer to focus on this recent Woods comment, about his diminishing health: “I don’t quite heal as fast as I used to. I don’t bounce back like I used to.’’

You’re getting a look at what golf was before Woods, just golf. Now what? At least Mickelson is in town after shaking off a recent back issue, gunning for a fourth green jacket that would place him in history with Woods, Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. But even Mickelson was taken aback by an Augusta without his longtime rival. “It’s a weird feeling not having him here, isn’t it?” Mickelson said. “He’s been such a mainstay in professional golf and the majors. It’s awkward to not have him here. I hope he gets back soon. I mean, I hope he’s back for the other majors, and as much as I want to win and I know how great he is and tough to beat, it also makes it special when he’s in the field and you’re able to win.”

Mickelson almost sounded wistful in describing the impact Woods has made on the sport. “Look what he’s done for the game the last 17 years,’’ he said. “I remember when I was an amateur and won my first tournament in Tucson, in 1991, the entire purse was a million dollars; first place, $180,000. Now the first-place check is a million dollars every week. And Tiger has been the instigator. Because he’s brought increased ratings, increased sponsors, increased interest, and we have all benefited.’’

Rory McIlroy, who has won two majors and was supposed to forge a rivalry with Woods, also spoke of a glaring absence. “You know where he is on the course just by the crowd and the gallery that follows him,” McIlroy said. “As a fan, it’s always better to have him in the golf tournament. I think people will miss him at the start. But by the end of the week, when it comes down to who is going to win the golf tournament, there’s going to be a worthy winner, and it will produce a lot of excitement.”

It depends. If Mickelson and McIlroy or Adam Scott are contending, then yes, because history is at stake. But if you haven’t noticed, golf is being overtaken by 20-somethings. We know nothing about them until they win, then they disappear. Know this: There are 24 first-time starters in the Masters field. Of late, we’ve been treated to good stuff on Sundays, with Bubba Watson winning two years ago and Scott breaking through last year. But Watson hasn’t done much since his victory. Scott? He’s talking tough, in part because Woods no longer lurks as an intimidating force.

“I think in the past, certainly that’s been easy to go to events and look at a guy who is the guy to beat,” Scott said. “I think that scope has kind of broadened now. There’s a lot of guys with the talent and the form that aren’t necessarily standing out above the others. But on their week, they’re going to be tough to beat. I’d like to think my name is one of those guys. And I feel like I’m going to be one of the guys who has got a chance if I play well this week.”

Since Tiger Woods won his last major on one leg, at Torrey Pines, the last 21 majors have been won by 18 golfers. Some, you know: Mickelson, McIlroy, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington. Some, you’re getting to know: Scott, Jason Dufner. Many others have come and gone and aren’t returning. The game is wide open now, but it lacks the most compelling sports figure of the 21st century.

You want me to get over it, move on. I can’t.

Neither can you.