LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Tiger Woods is not at The Masters this year, and neither am I. One of those will pass with little notice, the other with far too much.
I was perusing the offerings at Golf Digest when I came across this headline: "If Tiger Woods was playing the Masters this week, he'd probably say something like this."
Well, that's one way to work him in. There's no Tiger Woods at Augusta National, so let's just make one up. But are we really that desperate? You could do it the way Gary Player did it on The Golf Channel. When asked about speculation that Woods' exercise regimen over the years has led to more injuries later in his career, Player scoffed.
"People that are saying things like that have no conception of what they're talking about," Player said. "The night before I won the (the 1965 U.S. Open) , I was exercising profusely. I was squatting with 325 pounds on a Saturday night. And everybody said, ‘you can't do that and play golf. You're finished. You'll never have a long career.' So anybody who says that Tiger's working out too hard talks absolute nonsense. You cannot work out too hard. They talk nonsense."
It's funny. Nonsense was exactly the word that came to my mind with so much Tiger Woods fuss. It would make a nice drinking game, I suppose. Take one every time ESPN mentions Tiger Woods on Thursday. But you'd better already have called in sick for Friday. (You can insert your own John Daly joke here. I don't have the heart to make one.)
Yes, Woods is the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world. How that can be, I'm not sure. Oh, I know he's won enough tournaments and earned enough points. But if this were like any other ranking in real life, that is, if it were like college football, Tiger couldn't be No. 1 without having won a major in six years. Shoot, if you could stay on top without winning the big ones, Mack Brown would still be riding high at Texas.
And, I understand, there are some furrowed brows at the absence of Tiger, who has come to define golf television ratings and following. He tends to bring a television audience all of his own.
Billy Payne, Augusta National chairman, acknowledged the loss of Woods.
"Well, we miss Tiger, as does the entire golf world," he said. "What I like best about Tiger is, no matter where he is on a specific day, he is such a competitor. He is always a threat to make a run and do well and win here at Augusta National. I've told him in person many times that he could putt the greens blindfolded; he knows the course that well. So we miss him very much. Nevertheless, this is the Masters. This is what we hope is the best golf tournament in the world, one of the greatest sporting events, and I think we will have a very impressive audience and have another great champion to crown this year."
In other words, they did hold The Masters before there ever was a Tiger Woods, to some acclaim. Arnold Palmer can verify this, because he won four of them.
"You know, lately I've heard so much about Tiger and opinions," Palmer said. "Opinions are about what you pay for them, and most of us don't pay much."
Amen. Woods underwent back surgery to repair a pinched nerve, and Payne said that he has to be immobilized for two weeks.
There's a lot of speculation about whether Woods can resume his chase of Jack Nicklaus' record of 19 majors. He's five away from beating it. Even Nicklaus said on the radio, to ESPN's Mike and Mike, he thinks Woods can do it. At the same time, he acknowledged that he's saying what he's supposed to say. I mean, what kind of jerk would people think he was if he came out and said, "Nah. He's done. Can't do it."
I'm not going to speculate about it because before Woods wins five more majors, he has to win one more. And he doesn't look close to doing that to me. He has to remake his game, to a degree. He has to become a different golfer from the one who brought about the redesign of golf courses around the world. And it wouldn't hurt if he remade his public persona, reached out to a few more fans, even gave a few more interviews.
And he has to overcome one more thing, which is the greatest obstacle of all, perhaps — success.
Palmer said it, and he knows.
"Well, there is a drawback that relates to myself a little about the psychological aspects of the game and the fact that you've won and you've won the tournaments that you were working to win, and that is still there," Palmer said. "It's going to be ‑‑ he's going to have to overcome that. He's going to have to overcome the fact that he won as much as he did, and he's going to have to refresh that in his mind and his psychological approach to the game. If he can do that, I see no reason in the world why he can't come back and be as good a player as he ever was."
But that's a big if. And it's a ways off.
So I'm not going to spend much time until then talking about him. There are, this year, 24 rookies in The Masters' field. Not since a golfer we know awfully well in these parts, Fuzzy Zoeller 35 years ago, has a rookie won at The Masters. And not since the very first Masters in 1935 -- when everyone was a rookie -- have there been this many in a field. That alone brings an element of excitement.
Palmer has watched them all come in. He has marveled at their ability to hit long. And he has, well, not marveled at their play on the greens.
"I'm very impressed," Palmer said. "I've been watching these young guys and it's amazing how they hit the golf ball, how well they play. I've never ceased to be pleased and surprised to see the physical conditioning that these young people are coming with; to see their ability, to see how they play the game. I look at them and you think about a 23‑, 22‑, 25‑year‑old, and you see the shots they are hitting and how far they are hitting the golf ball; I'm startled, surprised and pleased.
"On the other hand, I watch them sometimes when they are playing recently, and I see some of the shots they play, and I must say that I'm a little disappointed in some of the finishes I've seen. Now, we see recently some of the things that are happening and they make the long putts and they do things, and that's great. I still stick with them that they are great players and they are doing very, very well. On the other side of it, like one of my old mentors used to say when I was playing tournament golf as an amateur, and he would say, ‘Okay, Arnie,' he says, ‘I see you're out there practicing that 20‑foot putt all day.' He says, ‘You'd better get that thing up around the hole around three or four feet or five feet and be knocking it in.' And I think about that. And I think about it all the time, and I remember how I used to dump the balls out pretty close to the hole, five or six feet, and practice it. And when I see some of these guys miss some of these little putts, I think if I were telling that guy what to do, I would tell him to get that shag bag out there and get about a 5‑ or 6‑footer and start knocking it in the hole."
I don't know if the next Tiger Woods is anywhere out there. But I wouldn't mind another Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino or anyone who can bring back the candor, humor and personality that this most frustrating of games once had. Shoot, I'd take another Phil Mickelson win in a heartbeat. Forget the equipment and the bench-press reps, in this first Masters without Tiger since 1995, I'd settle for a good story, and walk away happy.
It's time to put Tiger on the shelf. There is plenty of golf being played at a high level. I'm not a Tiger hater. If he can come back strong, I'll be rooting for him. But an ESPN headline I saw today, "For better or worse, golf is dependent on Woods playing," somehow suggests that the sport will just wither and die if Woods doesn't get back to his old self.
It will be a great story if he does, but it's not the only story out there. At the very least, let the story this week be about someone who is in the tournament, and not someone who is not.
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