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Golf has plenty of parity, but lacking star power

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Associated Press
August 10, 2011
— The world’s top-ranked player faced more empty seats than actual reporters when he met with the media before the PGA Championship.

The golfer who triumphed just last weekend has been overshadowed by the guy who carries his bag.


This is what the sport has come to without Tiger Woods winning with such regularity, with such dominance, that everyone else knew they were playing for second before they even got to the course.


Some might say, good riddance! No one wants to see the same champion week after week, year after year.


Then again, this parity thing doesn’t seem to be working out quite as well for golf as it does for, say, the NFL. Transcendent stars such as Woods and Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer are the ones who lure fans through the gates, pump up the TV ratings and move merchandise for the all-important sponsors.


“You can’t say that when Tiger was winning lots of major championships, it was boring or dull,” Lee Westwood said. “It was exciting to watch and see what he would do next.”


At the moment — Rory McIlroy notwithstanding — golf seems to be flailing just a bit, looking desperately for the next big thing just in case Woods doesn’t come all way back from personal chaos and a faltering body.


The last 11 majors have produced 11 winners. Nine of those were first-time major champions, including the current run of six in a row — Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, McIlroy and Darren Clarke.


Maybe that shows the depth of the game.


That doesn’t mean it’s good for the game.


“I’m not sure which is better,” said world No. 1 Luke Donald, speaking to about 20 reporters in a room that could’ve held a whole lot more. “I’d probably sway toward one person dominating. I think it brings a little bit more focus to the sport.”


Woods has captured 14 major titles, but none since he hobbled to a remarkable victory at the 2008 U.S. Open on a knee that needed major surgery. The following year, his marriage fell apart amid allegations of serial philandering. This year, another leg injury kept him from playing in either the U.S. Open or the British Open.


After a three-month layoff, Woods returned last week at Firestone but wasn’t a factor, finishing 18 strokes behind winner Adam Scott. The next shot at No. 15 comes in the PGA Championship, which begins Thursday at the Atlanta Athletic Club.


Woods is no longer the world’s No. 1 player, no longer the automatic favorite in every major. In fact, he’s 30th in the rankings and getting more attention for dumping longtime caddie Steve Williams than anything he’s done lately on the course.


Clarke, for one, misses the good ol’ days when Woods was at his peak.


“Tiger was the best player for a very long time and he raised the bar in terms of what everybody else did and everybody else’s preparation,” said Clarke, who became one of golf’s oldest first-time major champions when he captured the British Open at age 42. “Tiger has been wonderful for the game. He really has.”


Donald knows it will be a lot easier to win his first major if you-know-who never regains the form he once had. Still, the Englishman recognizes that a player such as Woods appeals to everyone from the serious fan to someone who doesn’t know the difference between a birdie and a bogey.


Without Woods at his peak, there’s just not the same buzz, much as it was for the NBA after Michael Jordan faded away.


“The fans always enjoy the hero, the one player who does dominate that they can cheer for,” Donald said. “Tiger was that person, obviously.”


After getting dumped this summer, Williams hooked up with Scott and was on the bag for his four-stroke win at last week’s World Golf Championship. The caddie wound up getting more attention than the winner, which shows both the power of anything related to Woods and perhaps the lack of anyone really compelling to assume the lead role.


Scott was still answering questions about Williams on Tuesday, though the Aussie insists the state of the game remains strong.


“It’s a really interesting time right now,” Scott said. “What we’ve seen this year have been a lot of great stories, with some really high-quality young players who are living up to their potential quickly.”


No one has more potential star power than McIlroy, who captured his first major title in June with a record-breaking romp at the U.S. Open. But it’s still a bit early in the game to declare him the next Tiger.


There are other potential stars, everyone from 22-year-old American Rickie Fowler to 19-year-old Japanese phenom Ryo Ishikawa to 18-year-old Matteo Manassero of Italy. Twenty-somethings Jason Day of Australia and Dustin Johnson of the U.S. are both ranked in the top 10 and have been serious contenders in recent majors.


All provide hope that the generation to come is in good hands.


Then again, many of the players who had been on that tier right below Woods have fallen off dramatically, sapping even more star power from the field. Padraig Harrington won three of five majors during a stretch in 2007 and ’08, but he’s slumped to 69th in the world rankings. Jim Furyk (25th) and Ernie Els (27th) have fallen off, as well.


If Woods hits the ball as erratically as he did last week at Firestone, he won’t be much of a factor in the PGA. There very well could be another first-time champion. Maybe Donald will finally break through. Or might it be Westwood, ranked No. 2 but also lacking a major title.


“There are obviously people out there who like to see a bit more variance and variety, that other people do have a chance to win,” Donald said. “That’s been the case the last two or three years, where it has been very wide open.”


But rest assured, there will be a lot more people watching Sunday if Woods is in contention.


Everyone loves a star, no matter how tainted he might be.



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