Monday, June 23, 2008

The 19th Hole: Not All is Lost

Did anyone notice that Stewart Cink put several of his choking performances this season behind him to capture a one shot victory at the Travelers Championship? I hope so. It was a compelling win for a nice guy that is very talented. He held off a bid from Hunter Mahan for a repeat performance and a successful title defense.

Among the players that did not win, there were some other stories of note. Heath Slocum, who had some well earned momentum with a Sunday 65 at Torrey Pines, fell just shy of victory. US Open first round leader Kevin Streelman made a serious paycheck that went a long way to guaranteeing his Tour future. And, not least of all, Vijay Singh finished in the top 5 after he complained that the Brits are lazy and content to lose. Singh somewhat backed up those remarks despite not winning the tournament.

If you are a real golf fan, though, you knew all of those things. A real golf fan watched a good percentage of the golf tourney on television, or at least caught up on the game stories or the highlights. They will always be there to watch golf on television, show up in person, and read the golf pages of the sports section – with or without Tiger Woods.

The media has been clamoring that the PGA Tour simply cannot be the same for the rest of the season without Tiger Woods. That is true and no consumer of media would dispute that claim.

Kenny Perry declared that Woods is the Tour. Retief Goosen admitted as much as part of his effort to back down from goofy comments that Woods may have been faking his knee and leg injuries.

In fact, the remainder of this season for the Tour will not be economically impacted in an extremely negative fashion because of those contracts. After all, Tim Finchem and company have also negotiated lengthy tournament sponsorship deals with organizations interested in exposure to the Tour, even if they are not a part of the 15 events that Woods is guaranteed to play every year. Also, it is on Woods’ back that the PGA Tour has negotiated extremely lucrative television deals for three consecutive contracts.

Still, there is no denying the tremendous impact of Woods on the popularity of the sport in the mainstream of our culture. The US Open had its highest rating since the Nicklaus era because of Woods’ involvement and, ultimately, his triumph. With no offense to the sport, Rocco Mediate, or Mike Davis and the USGA, but the numbers simply would not have been as high if it were Lee Westwood and Mediate coming down the back nine alone.

The show must continue, though. There are two majors to be played, a FedEx Cup to be awarded, and a Ryder Cup to be played. In fact, it is because of these four events that the Tour season can be salvaged or even considered a success.

The Open Championship at Birkdale and the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills will prove to be opportunities to see what major championship golf is like without Woods. It provides Phil Mickelson two chance to exorcise the specter of Winged Foot. Ernie Els has a chance to get closer to the career Grand Slam with a win outside of Detroit. Perhaps one of the young guns that have had a serious impact week to week will break through and win. Maybe Anthony Kim will be coronated as the successor to Tiger Woods.

The FedEx Cup will serve to prove who the second best golfer on Tour is at present. In that regard, it may actually help the format. After Woods’ late summer run last season, the FedEx Cup would have been buried had Woods not become its first champion. With Woods on the shelf this summer, there is no chance for that to happen. Instead, the Playoffs will be conducted with new volatility in the point structure and may help to decide how well the format does in creating excitement for the Tour. Also, if the FedEx Cup winner is not considered a total fluke (still almost impossible given the system in place), then he may be elevated to superstar status in the process.

And obviously the Ryder Cup will still mean a whole hell of a lot. It is the one patriotic competition that really matters anymore – mainly because the USA keeps getting crushed. With the home turf advantage and a friendly course to Americans in Valhalla, the Americans can answer if the stacked deck will be enough to finally win the Ryder Cup again. They can also disprove the myth that the best talent wins the Ryder Cup. It is a notion that Europe has been defying for almost 25 years now. Finally, it is the Americans’ turn.

Sure, I miss Tiger Woods and I certainly wish him a speedy recovery. But, alas, not all is lost. There are still three solid months of golf to go in the season and many compelling reasons to stay tuned.

No comments: