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January 7, 2010 6:41 AM

Tour starts without Woods, will anybody hear it?

tiger pensive.jpgThe PGA Tour season gets under way today when last year's winners square off in the SBS Championship on the Plantation Course at Kapalua in Maui, Hawaii. are done reading now, aren't you? It's OK, we heard that sigh from here. Or was that snoring?

Like it or not, the professional golf season starting without Tiger Woods is like U2 touring without Bono.

True, these early-season events in paradise will survive just fine without Tiger because they always have. Traditionally, Woods has never kicked off his schedule until the tour hit San Diego later in the month.

But up until this year, we always had a notion that Tiger was off on some horizon bashing balls and sculpting his game, mind and body for whatever event he had his eye on next. He was like a comic-book super hero off in a faraway place preparing to unleash his awesome powers on a diabolical golf course and its over-matched players.

Of course now we know that the next event wasn't the only thing The Tiger was eying, and the comic book started reading more like a Shakespearean tragedy.

No, what used to pass for tradition on the PGA Tour has officially gone the way of square grooves.

The only problem with rising to the grand heights that professional golf ascended to over the past decade, is that the fall can be frightful. Tiger's absence and tumble from grace will almost certainly mean less interest in the tour in the long run; which will mean less dollars from sponsors; which will mean lower TV ratings; which will mean less coverage; which will mean even less dollars from sponsors; which will mean less golf; which will mean even less TV...And so on.

Like it or not, Tiger made the current tour what it is today, and what it will be like tomorrow. Even when Tiger comes out of whatever cave he is hiding in, it's safe to predict that things will never be the same.

Let's assume he appears, clubs in hand, sometime this year...
Yes, there will be a carnival atmosphere when he returns, and the mass media will be in mass hysteria. For a while it will be one of the biggest stories ever. People who never gave two hoots about Tiger will follow him to see what all the fuss is, and was, about. People that hooted and hollered for Tiger before his self-inflicted crash will tune into see whether he is still worth all that hooting and hollering.
Golf, and Tiger, will be center stage.

From that point on, everything will depend on how he plays. If he steps up on the first tee and takes no prisoners, professional golf will have a healthy heartbeat again. Winning cures just about everything.
If he comes out and plays like Jerry Kelly, the game won't be on life-support, but it will have a noticeable limp.

For what it's worth, and here's where you can return to your nap if you like, I don't think Tiger will ever be the same golfer again, and the game will need to find its heroes in more wholesome places.

Will he win more? Of course. Will he win more majors? Er, yeah, but don't be surprised if Nicklaus holds onto his record. Will he continue to instill fear in the heart of his fellow players? No, not nearly as much, and this is a huge, huge factor. Tiger has now exhibited weakness, and it will be exploited by some talented golfers who once overestimated the guy's powers. Will he ever be held with the same ridiculous esteem that he was before the multiple-bimbo eruption? You know the answer to that one.

But all this is pure conjecture until Woods decides its safe to show up in the middle of the fairway again. Until then, enjoy all that pretty scenery in these no-name events littered among the paradise which is currently the PGA Tour.

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