PINEHURST, N.C. — Never have so many people wanted to send Tiger Woods a get well card.
As the golf world watches Martin Kaymer turn the U.S. Open into a soporific summer boat race, as a shriveled TV audience sees the diligent German hit practice balls with a yellow tennis ball gimmick thingy around his neck like Rene Russo learning to play in “Tin Cup,” one thought lurks in many minds.
What if Tiger is washed up?
What does golf have then? A guy who needs a swing-trainer necklace to face up to playing in the last group at the U.S. Open with a six-shot lead? Somehow, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, Phil Mickelson and certainly Tiger managed to play the weekend without some $19.95 magic cure from the back pages of a golf magazine attached to them. Hey, do you shank or smother hook? Put on the Martin Kaymer Choke Deflector.
When Woods shows up in Washington in two weeks to host, but not play in, his own Quicken Loans National at Congressional Country Club, many will want to encourage him with a slap on the back.
Please don’t. How’s that surgically repaired disc feeling, old buddy? Been able to swing a club yet, even a wedge? Can you play with the kids yet? Pick up your own bag?
If Woods winces or says the British Open is now off his schedule, all of golf will want to scream, “Come back! All is forgiven. Forgiven? Sorry, rephrase that. We’ve forgotten — forgotten everything except the one thing that matters.
“Not all that long ago, though it feels like an eon, you were the best player ever. Could we have that guy back, just for a few years? Because our game sure looks at sea without him.”
Golf always has what it has now on display at Pinehurst No. 2: a lot of talented and estimable players such as Kaymer (2010 PGA), Bubba Watson (2014 Masters), Jason Dufner (2013 PGA), Justin Rose (2013 U.S. Open), Adam Scott (2012 Masters) and Rory McIlroy (2011 U.S. Open) who have won a major championship, or even two, but don’t yet have the athletic charisma or public personalities to galvanize a mass audience or carry a sport.
But golf, maybe more than any other sport, has always, absolutely always, needed to be carried by one, two or three huge stars. As in every era, the game has a worthy cast to put on a wonderful play. There’s nothing “wrong” with golf. All it lacks is the protagonist whose fate animates all the action around him.
Unfortunately, a play without a protagonist draws flies.
Especially if it has to compete in an over-populated sports entertainment industry where, on Sunday alone, the U.S. Open will compete for the attention of TV viewers with the NBA Finals, the World Cup and 15 different major regional markets, such as Washington, that think they have a contending baseball team worth watching.
Right now, as this Open has clearly exposed with the early exit or irrelevance of recognizable names, the game of golf is down to a score of gifted but lesser lights, a couple of arriving twinkles in the sky such as Jordan Spieth, 20, and Mickelson, a beloved but slumping 44-year-old who may be on the wane.
What if back surgery has not just ruined Woods’s 2014 season, knocked him out of two majors already and probably at least three, but is, finally, the injury that is one bridge too far for him to make the trek back to a No. 1 world ranking or more major titles? No one in golf even wants to imagine it. And another Woods comeback is still probably the most likely outcome on the board. But this Open, with Woods gone and Mickelson far back, reminds us that a whole era may be ending.
From the moment Woods arrived as a professional, winning the Masters in ’97, until he beat Rocco Mediate on the 91st hole of the ’08 U.S. Open, golf rode a dozen-season popularity boom that fed off Woods’s supreme performances, his world-athlete stature and an image that was scrubbed so clean that the whole sport could see a gigantic blank check reflected in it.
The entire golf universe, from course builders to club makers to kids trying to decide which sport to love, were beholden to and buoyed by just one man. To a degree that exceeded the long reigns of Nicklaus and Palmer, Woods was golf — its face, its future, its financial engine and its letter of credit to the world. Buy us, believe in us, build for us and adopt us as a core sport because our man Woods will be great until he is 50. Minimum. If Nicklaus won a Masters at 46, what will Tiger do to top him?
Now, Woods has won plenty of tournaments, but nothing of historic weight in six years, since he was 32. Palmer and Tom Watson each won just one major after they were 32. Even for the greats, when it stops, sometimes it stops for good.
If the glow that surrounded Woods hadn’t been so otherworldly bright, if he’d just won seven major titles, instead of 14, we could see his physical deterioration, his cascade of surgeries to all available joints, for what they would be to any other 38-year-old athlete. Not the “beginning of the end,” but more like the “middle of the end” or even, though nobody wants to think it, “the end of the end.”
So, keep those cards and letters coming. Golf has never needed Woods more, and for the next few years, while its top players find their places, build their names and, perhaps, even develop into the sports’ new giants.
Remind Woods of all the joys of monomania — don’t quit the major championship quest just yet. Don’t start enjoying leisurely Father’s Days away from the U.S. Open too much.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.