A Tour Held Hostage
February 1, 2011 by Corrie Trouw • Print Story •
Sunday's conclusion of the Farmer's Insurance Open at Torrey Pines should have been a banner day for the PGA. Phil Mickelson posted four rounds under 70 on his home turf; Dustin Johnson, Nick Watney, Hunter Mahan, and Anthony Kim continued to build their young careers with top-10 finishes; and frequent contender Bubba Watson won the year's first high profile event. But instead, the day was ruled by one question:
How did Tiger Woods do?
This, of course, is not a purely new phenomenon. Tiger-obsessing has expanded ratings and prize pools for more than a decade. But like this? This is different.
Our collective fixation on Tiger Woods in the first 12 years of his career was a tribute to greatness. When he contended, we watched because, well, anything was possible. A sport which had been characterized by seas of plodding consistency surrounding islands of "pretty good" suddenly offered frequent mountain-top views of the unbelievable.
But now? Golf's post-Elin world offers far less possibility. Woods has only briefly brushed relevance (on the course) in the past 10 months. And a second Tiger question not only dominates the sport's conversation, but its evolution has rendered everything else irrelevant. Upon his comeback, we asked, "When will Tiger be Tiger again?" But a portfolio of 70-plus rounds and weekly mediocrity has shortened that question: "Will Tiger be Tiger again?"
And this is the PGA's curse. It is so inextricably linked with Woods that until he flashes the dominance from not-so-long-ago or it becomes clear that he never will, nothing else will matter.
But unlike most other sports, a golfer's greatness tends to fade much more gradually. When golfers end their careers, it is much different than the 40-year-old pitcher who retires in an injury-plagued spring training or Allen Iverson's forgettable few weeks in Memphis. Even the aged golfer with one eye on the Champions Tour is only four rounds away from being Jack Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters.
Now more than ever, the PGA Tour needs a successful Tiger Woods. Sure, in the past the tour's week-to-week success was tied to Woods' involvement. But during those periods, the meta-story was never in question. If Woods had a poor week, it had little impact on our expectations for the next tournament. And in the months after his leg injuries in 2008, at least everyone knew there would be no red-shirt Sundays or back-nine fist pumps.
But in 2011, every shot Woods takes counts toward something bigger. Every putt he lips out, every short iron he sticks within a few feet, and every wayward tee shot will be marked against his own personal par.
Until the PGA can emerge from Tiger Limbo, the weekly results of the field will pale in significance. Who cares who wins at Bay Hill or Doral if Woods' performance there gives us a clear sign of his near future trajectory?
Sports fans depend on context to understand what they are watching. This is a large explanation for the success of both professional and college football. In those seasons, there is no such thing as a meaningless regular season game (unless your team has already been precluded from reaching every season milestone it started with). In golf, audience size and intensity fluctuate wildly with context. Is this event a major or a regular tour stop? Do the world's best players tend to show up? Answer these questions, and you have a pretty good idea what the interest level will be.
Of course, over the past 13-plus years, "Is Tiger contending?" has been the biggest context-setter of all. But with Woods' impotent post-scandal performance, the pattern of negative answers to that question has opened the once ironclad reality of Woods' dominance to question. Will the past decade's greatest athlete never again hold that throne?
The PGA Tour with Peak Woods is a far different landscape than with the 2010 model. Until we know which Tiger inhabits the terrain before us, every stop on tour will be a referendum for our expectations.
Corrie Trouw is the founder of Pigskinology.com.