Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Golf needs Tiger Woods back, and needs him to win

And so a sport waits.

Soon, he will return. Just in time to save a sport again.

Soon, Tiger Woods will walk out of the clubhouse with something to do. Soon, he will be back, and he will be healthy, more or less, and once again golf will be complete. Soon, he will squint into the distance, and he will grip his driver once again, and the sport will revolve around him once more.

He has not played in a long time, and he has not won a significant tournament in a very long time, and yes, his image still needs work. But golf has waited an eternity for Tiger. The sport doesn't just want him. It needs him.

There was reason to smile again Friday when Woods announced he was coming back to the game in time for this week's Quicken Loans National, a designated rehab assignment of a tournament if there ever was one. Yes, he will be rusty, and yes, he is bound to hit a loose shot or three. But just like that, golf is once again complete.

Yes, he is rushing. He is 38 now, and he is running out of time. He has sat out two straight majors for the third time in his career. It is time he got going again.

Otherwise, golf might turn into … tennis.


You remember tennis, don't you? That sport used to be a big deal, too. There was a time, back in the day, when everyone loved tennis. We could not watch enough of it. There was a player for every flavor, and a good many of them were Americans. Yeah, people loved tennis a lot, right up the point when they did not.

Most weekends these days, you could play the game in a library. But you know what? Tennis is still a great game, and the players who are winning tournaments are still great players. No one is trying to rip the sport here.

As a group, however, it is fair to suggest that tennis players seem to lack the charisma they used to have. There are very few players to drive conversation among casual fans. There are fewer to make you tune in.

Think of it like this: Wimbledon begins Monday. Are you excited? No, not really. Only hard-core fans remain.

Of course, much of this is because, except for the aging Williams sisters, the game seems to have largely left the United States. An American male hasn't won a Grand Slam event in a decade, and it has been two years since one reached the quarterfinals of a major.

The result is that the sport seems to have less stature in this country these days.

There for a while, golf could feel tennis' pain.

This is how badly a sport can miss a star. It is as if all of golf has grabbed its lower back along with Woods, and it has been aching along with him. By and large, this still remains his sport. By and large, he still puts money in the pocket of every pro who plays it.

Ask the Masters. When Woods pulled out this year, the ticket prices plummeted. The television ratings fell by 24 percent.

Ask the U.S. Open. Oh, the dominating performance by Martin Kaymer didn't help, either, but without Woods, both tickets and ratings fell from the sky.

Like it or not, two sports are at play here. One is golf. One is golf with Woods. The latter is imminently more interesting. This is the third time in his career Woods has had to take time off during the season. This time has been the most devastating to the sport.

The first time it happened, because of an injured knee in 2008, Woods was still a young man. We knew he would be back. The second time it happened, in 2011, his infidelity scandal was still with us. Much of America was still mostly annoyed at Woods.

But this time, with his bad back, you can feel Woods' mortality. You can feel the end starting to close in on him and the lights starting to dim. And you think … not yet.

Oh, eventually golf will have to deal with the departure of Woods. He is an older golfer now, and his left knee and his back are older, and he has now missed six majors. He will never dominate the way he once did, back in that ridiculous streak where he won five out of six majors. The odds are now against him in that longtime goal of catching Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major wins, where it once seemed a question of how many wins Woods (who has 14) could break it by.

Of course, golf could use the old dominating Tiger. It could use him to take over as if he is playing a different sport than everyone else. But even if it can't get that Woods, it could use whatever he has to offer. It could use Woods the elder statesman. It could use Woods the competitor (who has nine top-10 finishes in his past 18 majors despite not winning). It could use Woods the conversation starter.

Without him, golf is too splintered. Think of this: In the past 24 majors, we have had 19 different champions. Only five men — Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Kaymer, Bubba Watson and Padraig Harrington — have won more than one of them. We love dynasties, and that isn't enough of one to capture our imagination.

No, the sport needs Woods. Even those who don't like Woods, who think that too much of the attention is paid to him, would admit that.

Right about now, it needs him to approach another tee. It needs him to walk another fairway. It needs him on another green. It's a better sport with Woods. It's a grander stage.

In the end, perhaps that is Tiger's greatest victory. Perhaps he has grown. Perhaps we have, too.

Perhaps, just perhaps, we got to appreciate him again.