Columns & Blogs

It’s not the same ride when Tiger’s not driving

It’s stupid to throw a party and worry about the guest that doesn’t show. With so many good golfers playing at Augusta National Golf Club this week, why write about the golfer that is not?

Because the golfer is Tiger Woods, and even though he might no longer be the best player in the world, he still is the most important.

You know how you’re aware when some people enter a room? You’re aware when Tiger fails to.

Tiger had back surgery March 31, and will miss several tournaments after the Masters, among them next month’s Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte.

“It’s a weird feeling not having him here, isn’t it?” Phil Mickelson asks Tuesday after his practice round. “He’s been such a mainstay in professional golf and in the majors. It’s awkward to not have him here. I hope he gets back soon.

“I mean, I hope he’s back for the other majors. And as much as I want to win, and I know how great he is and tough to beat, it also makes it – it makes it special when he’s here in the field and you’re able to win.”

Tiger has played in every Masters since 1995. He’s won four, the last in 2004. He’s played 17 Masters and finished in the top 10 in 13. The past eight years he’s finished – starting in ’06 – third, second, second, sixth, fourth, fourth, 40th and fourth.

Starting the tournament without Tiger is like starting the baseball season without the New York Yankees. The Yankees might not be the best team in baseball, but they are the most famous. When you beat them, it matters.

“The Tiger effect on golf has been huge from the mid-‘90s up to now,” says Rory McIlroy, like Mickelson one of the favorites in Augusta this week. “I think any sport benefits from a dominant figure like that to not really drive the game forward but to maybe be the legend – LeBron James, for example, at the minute in basketball, or Christiano Ronaldo in (soccer), or (Lionel) Messi.

“It’s been Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal in tennis, people like that, people that win on a regular basis and people you can look up to as heroes.”

Tiger also is the anti-hero, and bad guys real and contrived enhance any athletic endeavor. If you find Tiger cold, or pompous, and hold past infidelities against him, he offers somebody to dislike.

And don’t sports need this? Do you like LeBron and Kevin Durant, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox?

Golf fans embrace Mickelson. Tiger fans embrace Tiger.His gallery, by golf standards, is a mix. It’s black and white and, when you’re part of it, it feels like a movement.

When I write about Tiger in Augusta, I need to see him. The only way to guarantee a good view is to walk at least two holes, and perhaps three, in front of him, and post up next to the tee. Nobody else, not even Mickelson, requires that.

Even at 38, even after injuries to his back, elbow and knee, Tiger drives the sport.

“He’s driven the bus because he’s brought increased ratings, increased sponsors, increased interest, and we have all benefited,” says Mickelson. “But nobody has benefited more than I have.”

Tiger will be missed Thursday and Friday. But by Sunday, his presence will have faded. Every Masters creates its own intrigue and drama, stars and surprises, and as big as Tiger is, he’s not as big as this.

By then, it will be about the guests who made the party and the top of the leader board.