Finally out of the Woods

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Imagine a world without Tiger Woods.

The most polarizing figure in the sport of golf, gone.

After all, what is golf without Tiger?

Who would we turn toward for the same thrill and excitement that Woods provided for the past two decades? Would the sport of golf collapse?

These are questions that golf fans ask themselves more and more often these days.

Tiger Woods is far from being the golfer he once was.  Out of 13 PGA events in the last two years that he has played, he’s failed to finish five.  His most recent outing included firing an 85 at The Memorial, with a quadruple-bogey.

Gone are the days when he would take to the first tee in the last grouping on championship Sunday.  In his past two seasons he has less than $300,000 in earnings.

The player who could create fear in his Tour adversaries by simply wearing the color red on Sundays, is no more.

To tell you the truth, he has been replaced.  Replaced by a young crop of talented golfers who have one glaring commonality: They aren’t afraid of Tiger Woods.

For years Woods terrorized the Tour.  He was a colossus of golf that few could overcome. He would take two-stroke leads into Saturday of any given major and not once drop a shot to the field.

He’s the greatest front runner the game has ever seen.  In the majority of his major victories he has been without close competition on Sunday.  He won his first major, the 1997 Masters, by 12 strokes.

His significance goes beyond public performance.  He introduced fitness to the sport of golf.  He was the first golfer to employ diets and workout regimens as part of his training. It benefited him tremendously, as no other golfers attempted to do the same for years after Woods.

Now, it seems, his advantage over his peers has evaporated.

Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler have emerged as the new powers of the sport.  Their one great asset is that they’re too young to have experienced the brilliance of Woods.  Too young to have experienced the helplessness most golfers have felt trying to chase him up the leader board.

In the U.S. Open that begins this week, at windy, parched Chambers Bay, Wash., it’s far more likely we’ll see one of the young stars of golf clutching the trophy than we see Tiger winning his 15th major. 

These young golfers, along with many others, employ diet and exercise to their training regimens as Woods did when he first turned professional.

Woods is almost 40 with an ailing back and a much diminished mental approach (which was once his biggest advantage).  He stands four major victories shy of tying Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18.

Tiger has not won a major since 2008.  Nicklaus won his last one when he was 46.  With his superior training program it’s conceivable Woods could win a major at 46, perhaps 50.  But he cannot keep wasting years, in injury rehab and swing reconstruction, if he has  any chance at the sport’s most cherished record.  The odds appear hugely against him.

With his 15-year period of dominance ended, he leaves the door open for heroics from a new, younger generation of golfers.

Already this year we saw 21-year-old Jordan Spieth win the Masters in dramatic fashion, setting the tournament record for birdies with 28.

Rickie Fowler won an intense three-hole playoff at the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass after hearing a recent poll that he was “the most overrated player in golf”.

Who knows, maybe we will see this 15-year-old kid from Houston standing on 18 on Sunday hoisting the trophy.  Could there be a more marketable name than Cole Hammer?

Golf has evolved beyond Woods.  The sport will always have more dramatic finishes and new heroes to cheer for.  The future of golf has arrived in the form of young, unusually talented players, while Tiger’s time has passed.

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