By Art Spander
NAPA, Calif. — This is what golf will be in the coming years. This is the way golf is at the present. They’re playing the PGA Tour without Tiger Woods, at least for a while. A new season but old worries. What happens to the game?
The Frys.com Open starts Thursday at Silverado Country Club. It’s a place with a great history, a place where Johnny Miller and Jack Nicklaus have won, as if that has any effect on the game in 2015.
They keep telling us golf is in great shape. That people such as Rory McIlroy, who is entered in this Frys.com, and Jordan Spieth, who isn’t entered, will keep the fans attentive and interested. But golfers have always followed the game. It’s the non-golfers that golf needs.
Bill Veeck understood sports and show business. He owned several major league teams, the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox. The Browns — awful, trapped in the shadow of the St. Louis Cardinals — would eventually become the Baltimore Orioles, but in St. Louis they were all but ignored. Until the stunt.
Veeck signed a midget, Eddie Gaedel, then sent him to bat. Gaedel walked on four pitches, of course, and whether the idea was brilliant or idiotic didn’t matter, it would not go unnoticed. “If you had to depend on baseball fans for your support,” Veeck reminded, “you’d be out of business by Mothers’ Day.”
Golf isn’t going out of business, for certain. And yet, neither is it going as it did when Woods was the attraction. He was golf’s Eddie Gaedel, in a matter of speaking. He brought in an entire new constituency, people unfamiliar with game, who probably didn’t know a sand wedge from a sandwich. But after Woods’ spectacular introduction, the 1997 record Masters win, and the “Hello, World” commercial, they were Woods fans. Not golf fans, per se, but Woods fans.
So now there’s no Tiger Woods, as he rehabs from a second back surgery, so now that his 40th birthday is some two and a half months away, what happens to the Woods fans? Will they shift loyalties to someone like Rory or Spieth or Jason Day — or even Phil Mickelson? Or will they just end their brief relationship with the sport?
Golf is an individual sport. If you’re a Cubs fan and have suffered through the years you remain a Cubs fan, whether it’s Ernie Banks in the lineup or Kris Bryant. But if you’re a Tiger fan, especially one never previously involved in golf, it’s different.
Arnold Palmer was golf’s first superstar, starting in the late 1950s when golf and television formed a happy alliance. As he declined and later as Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Greg Norman declined — not to imply they had the unique appeal of Woods — some connected to the Tour advised journalists to write about the new guys and not the old ones.
“Let your readers know about all the great players out here,” was the usual admonition. The trouble was they knew but often didn’t care. And not much has changed, even with 2013 U.S. Open winner Justin Rose grouped in the first two rounds of this Frys with McIlroy and AT&T Pebble Beach winner Brandt Snedekder. Great players without Tiger's magic.
Tiger’s gone for a while, until next February or March. After that, let’s say another five years, because of the injuries and operations, two on the back, four on the left knee, Woods may be forced to retire and, barring a commemorative appearance, gone forever.
And for those who think it won’t make a difference, look at what occurred during the Wyndham event in August. He made an unscheduled appearance in an attempt to qualify for the Tour Championship events, and the crowds were far greater than in previous years without him in the field.
Woods, as the line goes, still moves the needle. Some dislike him, after the stories of his personal life. Some idolize him, acknowledging the 14 majors he’s won. But nobody disregards him. He’s still a story, even now when he’s not a story.
The golf tour without Tiger Woods? For better or worse, that’s the way it’s going to be.