The Players Championship, golf’s wanna-be major championship, tees off Thursday morning without defending champion Tiger Woods, who despite all his issues physical and otherwise, remains the top-ranked player in the world. In Woods’ absence, the story line golf can pitch this week is that any of four players can take over the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings: Adam Scott, Henrik Stenson, Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar.
Rev up your engines. Fire up the TV.
The Tiger-less Tour talk is not new, what with all the time Woods has missed because of personal and health problems over the past six years.
“We went through the Masters without Tiger, and you have to say, it wasn’t the same buzz,” six-time major champion Nick Faldo said in a conference call with reporters.
Same at the 2008 British Open and PGA Championship. Same at the 2011 U.S. and British Opens. Same as all sorts of PGA Tour events in between. “We’re kind of used to it,” Commissioner Tim Finchem said during a news conference earlier this week at TPC Sawgrass.
There’s an adage in team sports: Your best players better be your best players. And whether Woods is removed from the equation short-term or long-term, this seems to be a problem for golf today. Consider:
Phil Mickelson missed the cut at the Masters and doesn’t have a top-10 finish on Tour this season. Given the opportunity to contend last week in Charlotte, he shot 76 on Sunday.
Rory McIlroy has nothing but top-10 finishes this year (six in eight events worldwide), but he has only once truly contended. And when he took the lead into the final round of the Honda Classic, he shot 74 to lose to a pair of Russells (Henley and Knox).
Jordan Spieth threatened to become a household name when he shared the lead with Watson after three rounds of the Masters. But Watson beat him easily, and Spieth, still 20, has yet to notch a needle-moving victory.
Which leaves us with Scott, the 2013 Masters champ; Stenson, the FedEx Cup champion (try explaining the prestige of that to a non-golf fan); two-time Masters winner Watson; and Kuchar, who has never been so much as runner-up in a major but seems quite happy with the $21.8 million he has made since 2010.
Nice players all, well-known to dedicated golf fans. But stars? Guys the general public will turn on the television to watch? No.
Consider a few more names: Scott Stallings, Russell Henley, Chesson Hadley, John Senden, Matt Every, Steven Bowditch, Seung-Yul Noh. Each has won a PGA Tour event this year. The PGA Tour uses that as evidence of the depth of its fields: Steven Bowditch? Well, sure. These guys are so good, anyone in the field could win.
Golf fans might believe that, even enjoy it. But that’s a disconnect with the rest of the sporting public. Forget about only Woods for a while. For an event such as the Players to register during a weekend that includes the NBA and NHL playoffs and, for the first time, the NFL draft, golf needs stars to emerge.