x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Missing Woods leaves a hole in the PGA line-up

Tiger Woods, the only golfer who matters to millions, did not qualify for the Tour Championship, but perhaps that is how it should be.

Despite a poor season in the wake of personal problems, the presence of Tiger Woods in a golf tournament boosts fan interest.
Despite a poor season in the wake of personal problems, the presence of Tiger Woods in a golf tournament boosts fan interest.

U2 are performing a concert without Bono. The finale in the Harry Potter film series will omit the title character. The circus is coming to town without the daring young man on the flying trapeze. Hey, anything is possible now that the PGA has decided to muddle through its Tour Championship this week minus Tiger Woods, the only golfer who matters to millions of casual golf followers: you know? People who think a driving range is a place to practise parallel parking and left turns.

The PGA is holding its all-star extravaganza without its all-time star. Could it not have granted the player exemption like they do at the Waste Management Phoenix Open or the John Deere Classic? Has not his body of work earned him a lifetime pass? The PGA - under intense competition for attention amid distractions from the NFL, baseball's pennant races and stock-car racing's own, louder version of the Tour Championship - would have loved to have had Woods swinging, grimacing and barking all weekend.

But rules are rules. Actually, in golf - where players are punished for touching their clubs to sand during practice swings or carrying around one too many clubs even if it is never used - rules are nuttier than the neighbourhood association covenant that requires your lawn furniture to match a certain colour scheme. In this case, though, the rules are legitimate. As it should be, only the 30 players who rack up the most points in a convoluted qualifying system get waved through.

So, instead of Woods, we get Bo Van Pelt. And Kevin Na, the oft-spoken answer to a question. Q: Do you plan to watch the tournament? A: Na. Fine. Tiger did not earn his way in, finishing 42nd in qualifying points, 272 behind the last man in, which sounds like a lot. But maybe it is not. Woods has not won all season. He averaged 71.07 strokes, 129th-best on the tour, after an unfailingly annual rate in the 60s. He placed 117th in sand saves, 153rd in hitting greens in regulation, 160th in driving accuracy. Did you even know there were 160 tour players to rank?

The fact is, Woods is better off practising shots out of bunkers and off tees, rather than addressing media inquiries between Tour Championship rounds on whether he deserves to play another event next week. That would be the Ryder Cup, which does crack open the door to allow wild cards who come up shy in another points qualifier (do not even ask). Captain's selections, they are called, and Corey Pavin exercised one of his on Woods for the US roster.

Overlooking Tiger's surprisingly middling 11-13 record in Ryder Cups, Pavin was won over by his raging competitiveness and steely nerves, welcome traits in the expected inhospitable environment of Wales. The choice drew minimal backlash because no American tamed enough golf courses this season to cry foul. Pavin has since indicated on BBC Radio he feels no obligation to suit up Woods all five days of the international golfathon. The notion of Tiger reduced to cheerleader for some matches seems unfathomable until you hear what a young buck on the European circuit said.

"We cannot underestimate him, but if there ever was a good time to play Tiger, it's now," Rory McIlroy, 21, told the British press. Unconcerned about providing Woods with bulletin board material, he added, "I don't think people find it as daunting a task as they did two years ago, after all that has happened." You may have read about it in the tabloids. Woods was exposed as a philanderer, which cost him his marriage, reputation and dignity.

His golf game suffered under the weight of the humiliation and futile efforts to keep his family intact. If that were the extent of his troubles, he might well be on the golf rebound. With divorce, the hurt of the heart usually subsides. Not so easily dismissed is the cumulative effect of four operations on Woods's left knee, which reverberated into neck pains, impacting his gale-force swing. Woods has whiffed on attempts to adjust his form to bodily changes. Abandoning the home run hitter's swing altogether would be foolish, but a little finesse might help. Perhaps that was his goal in switching coaches.

Tiger's absence this week may be painful for golf, but also necessary. The handover of power to a younger generation is inevitable. It may happen sooner rather than later because, let's face it, the onetime grandmaster is in a funk that he may never fully escape. Winning grand slam tournaments, or even making the Tour Championship, is no longer as certain as a tap-in putt. @Email:sports@thenational.ae