July 16, 2014 at 8:43 am

John Niyo

Tiger Woods remains golf's major draw

While 38-year-old Tiger Woods resumes his career-long chase of Jack Nicklaus' record 18 major titles, the sport he once conquered craves a superstar with which to align itself, or even just a good rivalry. (Peter Morrison / Associated Press)

Golf doesn’t need Tiger Woods. That’s what the folks who love the game, those who feel the need to protect the game, those who might even know the difference between Ryan Moore and Ryan Palmer on the PGA Tour, have insisted for the better part of two decades now.

And they’re probably right: Golf doesn’t need Woods any more than Woods, with over $1 billion in career earnings, needs golf.

Still, at the moment, they’re both left wanting for something. And as Woods makes his 2014 major championship debut at this week’s British Open, 3˝ months after undergoing back surgery, it’s a topic of conversation — and maybe some controversy — again at Royal Liverpool.

While the 38-year-old Woods resumes his career-long chase of Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major titles — he’s stuck on 14, and no golfer has won four past the age of 37 — the sport he once conquered craves a superstar with which to align itself, or even just a good rivalry.

Since 2008, there have been 18 different champions in the 22 major championships, and as Woods himself noted Tuesday, “It’s getting harder to win. The margin is so much smaller.”

Yet at the end of that same news conference, Woods had the gall to say that anything short of winning the Claret Jug this week would be unacceptable. (”That’s always the case,” he explained.) That stance no doubt provided some more fodder for the British tabloids, as everyone from Rory McIlroy to Old Tom Morris has been asked to weigh in on Woods’ return to the site of his 2006 Open triumph, with the responses ranging from dutifully reverent to rather disrespectful.

McIlroy called Woods’ presence “important,” and Phil Mickelson said, “We all benefit from having him in the tournament.”

But Woods’ former coach, Hank Haney, recently told a Scottish newspaper, “he doesn’t care as much as he used to” and the current world No. 1, Adam Scott, admitted, “The scare factor about Tiger is much less.”

Meanwhile, Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open champ who is a TV analyst, said on a conference call last week, “It’s asking a lot of even Tiger Woods to go and really expect him to play well.”

'A tough competitor'

All of this left one of the game’s greats — and one of Woods’ sharpest critics in the past — a bit puzzled by the backlash.

“It’s silly,” said Tom Watson, who’ll be the U.S. Ryder Cup team captain this fall at Gleneagles in Scotland. “Silly to think that about what he said. Why can’t you understand that Tiger might very well win this tournament? …

“Just put it this way, I wouldn’t write off Tiger Woods for a long time, the way he plays the game. He’s a tough competitor. He knows how to swing the golf club. And, yes, he’s had some injuries and other issues, but the thing is, he’s had a long career, and I fully expect it to be a longer career.”

And to those who suggest it’s a career at a crossroads, or that he might be washed up at the age of 38, after three major surgeries and a few major personal crises, Woods has a suggestion: Check his track record. He may be six years removed from his last major championship win, but he did win five tournaments in 2013, including the Players Championship, earning PGA Tour player of the year honors for the 11th time.

“I’ve been in circumstances like this,” Woods said, noting the 2008 U.S. Open he won while playing with a torn ACL and stress fractures in his leg. “I’ve proven I can do it.”

Said Watson: “You have to respect what his capabilities have been and probably will be again. It’s not fear. It’s respect. When I was playing golf, it was always, ‘There’s Jack on the leaderboard .... ‘Where’s Jack?’ That’s the first name I looked (for) up there. … And I guarantee you that these players looking at these new electronic scoreboards are going to be looking for Tiger Woods’ name, guaranteed.”

'The biggest draw'

Now, there are no guarantees Watson will use one of his Ryder Cup captain’s selections on the former world No. 1. (“If he’s playing well and he’s healthy, I’ll pick him,” Watson said.) But Woods may need a win in the next few tournaments to earn a spot in the FedEx Cup. If not, Watson will find himself in a bind. As European captain Paul McGinley reminded everyone the other day, “He’s the biggest draw in the game.”

Indeed, with no Woods at the Masters in April, and with Mickelson — he hasn’t locked up a Ryder Cup spot, either — among those missing the cut, the weekend TV ratings were the lowest for CBS since 1957.

Likewise, the ratings for Martin Kaymer’s dominant — and drama-less — victory at the U.S. Open last month were down 46 percent from a year ago, and 35 percent from McIlroy’s runaway in 2011.

With Woods back in the field for the season’s third major, ESPN will devote one of its myriad channels (ESPN3) to wall-to-wall Tiger coverage at Hoylake, offering a live feed of his entire round each day.

Unnecessary? Probably. But it does seem a bit needy, doesn’t it?

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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