O'Neill: Out of Woods’ darkness may come another star

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    If Bill Withers was commissioner of the PGA Tour, he might put it this way: “Ain’t no sunshine when he’s gone ... only darkness every day.”

    If Bill Withers was commissioner of the PGA Tour, he might put it this way: “Ain’t no sunshine when he’s gone ... only darkness every day.”

    Commissioner Tim Finchem won’t go that far in describing his PGA Tour world without Tiger Woods. Finchem isn’t much of a vocalist, anyway. He is, however, a realist.

    “I’m not saying everything is fine," Finchem said during a recent conference call. “We’ in a down economy. Having the No. 1 player in our sport not playing is not a positive thing."

    We won’t bore you again with the details; you’ve heard them before. The television ratings that spike by as much as 100 percent, the purses that have gone up exponentially since the late 1990s, the attendance figures that escalate significantly, the merchandise sales that swell, and so on, and so forth. All of it is directly associated to one bag — the one belonging to Tiger Woods.

    So what happens now? The headlines have rescinded in recent days, but the long-term fallout remains uncertain. When Woods returns from his self-imposed leave of absence, his facial cuts will be healed but the emotional scars will be available.

    The collateral damage done by the explosion of Woods' personal life will be irreversible on some levels. Sponsors like AT&T and Gatorade already jumped ship. The invincible yoke of impeccable demeanor and uncompromising character has been shattered for good. Time will soften the picture, but for now, the gallery responses might hinge on Woods' marital status.

    If Elin Nordegren Woods elects to stay with her offending husband, significant numbers will empathize and sympathize. The divorce/separation figures in this country are staggering. More than a few average Joes and Josephines can relate to what is happening in the Woods' household, even if on a less grandiose scale. They will pull for the embattled family and strained relationship to beat the odds and cheer for a comeback.

    On the other hand, if that yacht has sailed, if Tiger and Elin can't work things out, it will establish a divider between good and evil. And we all know which sides of the fence Mr. Woods will fall. The TMZs and Nancy Graces of the world will make that sensationally clear, night after night ... after night.

    How does it affect the legendary focus? Stevie Williams, Woods' caddy, has been known to accost photographers who dare test those powers of concentration with an intrusive shutter. What happens when the hecklers show up, when the jokes about “rescue clubs” start to fly, when the crude remarks concerning “head covers” are heard. You know they're coming.

    Does Williams go into the crowd like a crazed Happy Gilmore, does he kick Bob Barker's ass? How will the notorious Woods stare down be received? Will he still slam a club in anger, or bark F-bombs after bad shots? Will he still punctuate big moments with the defiant fist pumps?

    Or will it be a kinder, gentler Tiger, an autograph-signing Tiger, a tame Tiger. For that matter, how will the new groove rule impact his game? Will he have the same rough-resisting escape artist? Or can Woods put all of this to bed — pardon the expression — by simply winning again?

    No one knows for sure what kind of player Woods will be when he returns, and for that matter no one knows when he will be back. But we know what golf has been like when he has been missing. We were reminded just last year when he took eight months off to rehabilitate his knee after winning the 2008 U.S. Open.

    But a 2010 season that begins without Woods might be different. There are some storylines in the mix that potentially capture imaginations. Nothing it going to make the needle jump like Woods, whose celebrity is arguably bigger than ever, now that it transitions from sports pages to scandal sheets.

    But there are developments in the game that might help fill the void. Should Woods stay away for an extended period of time — although it is hard to imagine he would miss the Masters in April — an opportunity exists for the second-most celebrated player in the world, Phil Mickelson, to resurface. 

    Already popular for his everyman vulnerability and family values, “Lefty” could be a straw that stirs the PGA Tour drink if he can make a significant splash. A sympathetic figure in 2009, when both his wife and mother were diagnosed with breast cancer, Mickelson finished on a dramatic note, starring in the President's Cup, winning the Tour Championship and the HSBC Champions.

    Mickelson has not won a major since the 72nd hole debacle at Winged Foot kept him from winning the 2006 U.S. Open and a third major in succession. If he can get back to that level, if he can win at Augusta or at Pebble Beach (site of the U.S. Open), he will fill the empty magazine covers.

    Likewise, for golf as a whole, Michelle Wie looms as a box office name with which to reckon. Wie is the only player on the LPGA Tour that creates the kind of buzz that crosses gender and nationality. The former child star got her first professional win late in 2009 and came close to doing it again before the year was out.

    If Wie has broken through, if she is ready to be the spectacular player a 2006 Time magazine predicted she would be when it listed her as “one of the 100 people who shape our world,” she can do profound things for the LPGA and help stabilize a Tiger-less landscape.

    Another story that bears watching is the groove move. The new restrictions represent the first equipment rollback by the USGA and Royal and Ancient in 80 years. The shift back to V-grooves is the latest salvo in the ongoing war between innovation and integrity.

    For some, like Jack Nicklaus, the protective potential of the new rule amounts to little more than a “chair off the Titanic.” For others, like Pat Perez, who used conforming irons to compete in the Chevron World Challenge last month, it's a “whole new game.” Will the new irons shackle the “bomb and gouge” squad, or will these talented players develop techniques to neutralize their impact.

    When Enquiring minds aren't occupied by Woods' marriage counseling updates, they will want to know.

    And there is always the possibility, in the absence of Woods, another star might rise. Perhaps Anthony Kim will get his act together in 2010. Perhaps Rory McIlroy is the real deal. Perhaps Ernie Els will come back, or Padraig Harrington will reboot. Perhaps Sergio Garcia really does exist, after all. Maybe Tom Watson, or some elder like him, can take us back in time once more.

    “It won’t be at the same levels without our No. 1 player, there’s no question about that,” Finchem said. “No sport would be at the same level without its No. 1 player. But I think the doom and gloom needs to go away.”

    Agreed, because there is a self-perpetuating quality to the all-in attention paid to Woods. Ain't no sunshine when Tiger's gone, maybe that's true to some extent. But if you're a fan of golf, 2010 will not be only darkness, not every day, anyway.