Cleat Geeks

Tiger by the Tail

The U.S. Open is under way, and Tiger Woods is nowhere to be found.

What’s that mean for golf? Is it good? Is it bad? Does it not matter?

We asked our Cleat Geeks readers in a recent poll and the results showed the following:

Fifty-seven percent of those who responded said they didn’t care he wasn’t playing, and another 13 percent actually said golf is better without Woods. Only the remaining 30 percent said they miss having Tiger around.TigerWoodsFistPump

Let’s take a deeper look, since some clearly have forgotten how great Woods was and what his impact on sports was.

Eight years ago this week, Woods scored one of his greatest victories, winning the U.S. Open on a damaged knee that required major surgery days after the end of the tournament. And he did it in the toughest circumstances, battling not just the 72 holes of regulation but then an 18-hole playoff with Rocco Mediate that still was tied, leading to a sudden-death playoff he won on the first extra hole.

That’s 91 holes. On a torn ACL and a stress fracture in his knee. It was Woods’ 14th career major win and his 13th in the previous 38 he had played. It seemed the all-time record of 18 held by his idol, Jack Nicklaus, would be falling, not just “if” but “when.”

But other idols had fully gripped Woods. His extramarital affairs were in full swing, and the following November exploded out of control after an incident at his home led to an altercation with his then-wife. After that, he wound up in a rehabilitation center and his game, and health, have never been the same since, even if perhaps his personal life has gotten a bit more under control.

And he hasn’t claimed a major championship in those eight seasons, and won’t be anytime soon.

That week of that great U.S. Open triumph, the top three players of today were in decidedly different places.

Jason Day was 20, had turned professional but wasn’t even up to the PGA Tour yet. In fact, he was still two years away from even qualifying for his first major tournament.

Rory McIlroy was 19, already a sensation as a junior player and playing his first full season on the European Tour, where he finished 36th on its Order of Merit list. He wouldn’t notch his first professional win until the next season.

And Jordan Spieth was only 14 years old, competing in elite junior tournaments but still nowhere near the heights he has achieved.

TigerWoods2None have battled Woods at his prime. They haven’t stared down the pressure that caused so many to wilt during that run between 1999 and 2008 when Woods won more than one-third of the majors played, a mark that may never be matched again.

I’m a Jack Nicklaus guy and always will be. What he did in winning and consistency is unparalleled, as he also scored 19 major runner-up finishes in addition to his 18 wins, and a total of 56 top-five efforts. That’s 14 years of major championships where he finished in the top five. Only a handful of players in this year’s field have even PLAYED in 56 majors period.

But Woods is the one golfer ever who became the biggest name in all of sports. In fact, go back 12 to 15 years or so, and Woods was arguably up there with people like Oprah Winfrey, maybe the Pope, as the biggest names in all of culture, period. That’s an unprecedented place for a golfer.

Tiger Woods made golf cool and accessible. As a young guy who grew up playing golf in the late 70s and early 80s, I never wanted to tell the other kids in school because of how “uncool” an activity it was. And youngsters weren’t even encouraged to play, as I remember scorecards at some courses that said things like “nobody under the age of 12 admitted.”

Woods’ impact birthed a great interest in the game among younger players, and that interest has been carried on by popular players like Spieth and Rickie Fowler, whose colorful outfits can be seen all over the gallery among young fans at any tournament.

tigerwoodsThe reality is, if Woods can get back anywhere near his old form, it would be huge for golf. And honestly, it might be just as big if he comes back and struggles badly, where it becomes like an old Willie Mays stumbling around in the outfield late in his career, a shell of the superstar he was in his best days as one of baseball’s all-time great all-around players.

More people would be watching this weekend if Woods were in contention, or even in the tournament period. And golf would be far better off if Woods can find a way to stay healthy, build his game back up and make one more run at pushing the top level of the sport.

It’s unlikely Tiger will catch Nicklaus’ record at this point. It may well be unlikely he will ever win any PGA Tour event again. It’s not totally uncommon for a player age 40+ to win a Tour event but in 32 events this season, it hasn’t happened yet.

What would be great is to see Tiger make one more run at greatness, perhaps have a head-to-head battle or two with one or more of the young lions he’s never faced. We never really got that with he and Jack, as by the time Tiger burst on the scene, Nicklaus was a solid decade past his prime.

Because of Tiger’s repeated health issues, we can only dream of all that right now, and perhaps that’s all we ever get to do.

Time will tell, and ultimately Father Time is undefeated.

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