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Woods still a top attraction despite declining career

March 27, 2011

At what point in Tiger Woods’s golf career will the media stop trailing the guy around like he’s still the No. 1 player in golf?
Even though Woods has been a non-factor in most tournaments since Thanksgiving of 2009, the long-time No. 1 player in the world still gets an inordinate amount of face time on television as he struggles to regain his old form. I guess the guy is news, no matter what he shoots each day. Or maybe we all just like to watch the golfing version of a train wreck unfold each time he plays.
While Woods, now 35, and 40-year-old Phil Mickelson deal with golfing middle age, some of their former subordinates are taking over both the European and PGA Tours. And the media isn’t telling us much about them.
For those who care, Germany’s Martin Kaymer is ranked No. 1 in the world. He is 26 years old and could stay on top for awhile. Veteran Lee Westwood is No. 2 and playing very well. The Englishman turns 38 later this year.
Luke Donald, who won two straight Northeast Amateur championships in East Providence in 2000-2001, is ranked third in the world. Luke is 33 years old.
No. 4 on the list is Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, the reigning U.S. Open champ. He is 31. Countryman Rory McIlroy is 22 years old and ranked No. 8.
Woods has fallen to No. 5 at this point and is plummeting down the world rankings like a bad stock on Wall Street. Mickelson is ranked No. 6 in the world. He used to be the perennial No. 2 behind Tiger.
The U.S. has four golfers ranked in the world’s top 10. Veterans Matt Kuchar and Steve Stricker are 9th and 10th, respectively. England has three golfers ranked among the top seven – Westwood, Donald and Paul Casey (No. 7). Northern Ireland has two golfers in the top eight.
Clearly, European players are dominating the world rankings, owning the first four spots and 11 of the top 20. Last summer, the Euros crossed the ocean and won three PGA Tour tournaments in a row, prompting Westwood to kid commissioner Tim Finchem after an American golfer broke through to win.
The best young American golfer is 11th-ranked Dustin Johnson, another Northeast winner. He turns 27 in June. Bubba Watson, ranked 17th in the world, is 32 and a late bloomer.
Looking at the ratings, you realize how seasoned most of the world’s top 20 golfers are. Only Kaymer and McIlroy are in their 20s.
Tiger, of course, dominated the world from the time he was 21 years old. That’s what made him so special. Woods cut short his college career at Stanford and immediately began winning all kinds of pro tournaments, big and small. He accumulated 71 PGA Tour wins in 13 years. He famously collected 14 major championship wins, the last one coming at the 2008 U.S. Open that he won while playing with a knee injury that would require surgery.
Now we watch Tiger and wince as he dumps balls in the water and flings his club to the ground like an average weekend player.
Maybe Woods will always be a television presence when he’s golfing, whether he’s in contention or not. Arnold Palmer won his last PGA Tour event at the age of 41 and the cameras never left him. Palmer took the embryonic Senior Tour and made it a flourishing business when he turned 50 years old. Television invented the Skins Game competition so that Arnie could ratchet up golf’s ratings during the so-called “Silly Season.”
The big question with Tiger Woods is how long he will continue to compete, should his losing streak extend into his 40s. We’ve never quite had an elite golfer like Woods lose his skills so quickly. How will Woods deal with relative mediocrity? How is he dealing with finishing 30th at Arnie’s tourney, which he has won four times over the years?
Think about it. Bobby Jones and Byron Nelson walked away from competition in their 30s, fearing emotional burnout. Jack Nicklaus cut back his playing schedule, choosing not to show off his fading skills to the public.
Palmer and Sam Snead played and competed on the Senior Tour into their 70s, not caring how it looked to others. They just loved the game.
One wonders how much Tiger loves the game. We all know how his father, the late Earl Woods, stuck a club in his son’s hands a few days after the toddler learned how to walk. Tiger’s love of the game was tied to his relationship with Earl. When the father died in 2006, Tiger kept on winning while expanding his social life off the course, leading to the disintegration of his marriage and the public humiliation that came with revelations of his numerous affairs with women.
Does Tiger really love golf, or was it the winning that made him happy?
When Tiger turns 40, we should have a better idea where his golf career is heading. At 35, he heads to The Masters in two weeks, knowing the TV cameras will keep track of his every move, even if he is 10 shots out of the lead.
Woods remains the biggest story in golf. But his time in the spotlight may be growing shorter. It’s pretty certain he’s not going to age gracefully the way Palmer and Nicklaus did. The public will never treat him with the reverence it gave Arnie and Jack, that’s for sure.

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