Fans vanish into mist with Tiger Woods
Fears grow over golf's future as not even Rory can match box office draw of waning Woods and fellow ageing icons
RICKIE FOWLER and Billy Horschel got a bleak foretaste of what life on tour may be like without Tiger Woods.
FedEx Cup champion Horschel and California poster boy Fowler played with Woods for nearly 12 holes of the Farmer's Open at Torrey Pines.
On the third green, Tiger then bade them adieu, limped to a buggy and was whisked away.
When they stood on the next tee, Horschel and Fowler looked at their rapidly thinning audience and wondered how many might hang around for the rest of their round.
"We saw all of these media people scamper away towards him," Horschel told Golfweek's Alex Miceli.
"We went from 600 or 700 spectators to 50. We became chopped liver. We realised where we stand in the game of golf and we had a good joke about it."
Yet could there be any more chilling metaphor for golf?
Now the illusion has been shattered of Woods making a full recovery from back issues which required a discectomy last March, it's fair to assume the pile-driving Tiger of old is no more.
All it needed last Thursday was a wild swing, no more or less off kilter than many others which for years have placed enormous stress on Tiger's lower back, to send it into spasm and render unbearable the pain (and mortification) of playing with physique and technique in tatters.
Woods should recover sufficiently to cross swords with Rory McIlroy at The Honda in a fortnight.
With his 'chip-yips' still an issue, Tiger is unlikely to perform well enough at PGA National to force his way back into the world top-50 and qualify for next month's Cadillac WGC at Doral.
So he'll go on to another of his favourite stamping grounds at Bay Hill for Arnie Palmer's Invitational, which McIlroy has entered for the first time, it was confirmed yesterday.
Last Wednesday PGA tour commissioner Tim Finchem insisted Tiger still had "a shelf life" of 10 years on Tour but events the following afternoon posed the question: how much more humiliation does he need or want?
Though still 'only' 39, Woods has played to a higher intensity than the majority of his peers.
The ageing of a generation of multiple Major-winners has crept up on us, including the 'Big Five' of the noughties - Mickelson, Els, Goosen, Singh and Woods, plus Harrington and Cabrera.
The erosive passage of time is brought into focus by the failure for the first time of both Mickelson and Woods to make the weekend in consecutive tournaments, as in Phoenix and La Jolla.
So who will replace the 'Old Guard', these seven samurai, and persuade fans to stay at the fairway ropes?
McIlroy has the game to thrill and one day maybe exceed 14 Majors, but, unlike Tiger, he cannot carry a generation on his back.
Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer both have a couple of Majors to prove they are men of substance, while Jason Day's sudden-death win at The Farmers strengthens suspicions that he can eclipse Adam Scott at the pre-eminent Aussie.
Shane Lowry's performance in getting to within two strokes of the play-off with a superb final-round 68 on the formidable South Course, suggests that the Offaly man will soon throw down the gauntlet to McIlroy and Graeme McDowell in the Major Championship arena.
Yet as his body clock runs down, it's abundantly clear, nobody can replace Tiger.
Golf's seven shambling samurai
World rank: 18
Mickelson suffers from chronic psoriatic arthritis and currently rates his putting “beyond pathetic”. Yet there’s always a chance he will turn up and win at Augusta or anywhere else, like he did at the 2013 Open in Muirfield. Still, Mickelson appeared to run out of steam late on in quite a few rounds in 2014, which, like the putting blues, is not unusual for elite Tour professionals in their mid-40s.
World rank: 62
THOUGH four shy of the record 18 Majors won by Jack Nicklaus and needing three more PGA Tour victories to match Sam Snead’s 82, Woods was the greatest golfer ever, making his current travails infinitely more humiliating. As he wrestles with technical problems in his chipping and swing, physical issues with his lower back, plus a crisis of confidence, Tiger is caught in a vicious vortex. Time has eroded his power and resolve and not even he can wind back the body clock.
World rank: 70
ELS has a languid swing which is always a joy to watch, though it makes his long, grim struggle with the putter all the more incongruous. Months before winning his fourth Major, the 2012 Open, Els was so brutally afflicted, he considered packing in golf: “Mentally and physically, just the despair of it can get to you. . . I did get close to saying ‘screw it.” Winless since June 2013 and wallowing outside the world’s top 50, he may miss the Masters for the second time in three years.
World rank: 282
WHEN he won the $10m FedEx Cup in 2008 at the age of 45, Singh seemed to have the march of time. Yet he was troubled by a nagging back problem, then underwent knee surgery and became so frustrated with niggling aches and pains hampering his practice, even tried Deer Antler Spray late in 2012. This led to embarrassment and an ongoing legal battle with the Tour. Vijay has not won since Tiger’s World Challenge in 2008.
World rank: 80
Never write off Cabrera at The Masters, even if the beefy Argentinian has missed the cut in three Majors, including last April at Augusta, and withdrawn injured from two others since losing a dramatic play-off with Adam Scott in 2012 for a second Green Jacket. Cabrera, who won the Greenbrier Classic last summer, has the mental and physical resilience of men who come up the hard way, but Father Time is tougher.
World rank: 220
In the top 10 in the world rankings for over 250 weeks between 2001 and 2007, Goosen’s US Open victories in 2001 and 2004 established him with Tiger, Phil, Ernie and Vijay among golf’s ‘Big Five’ in the mid-noughties. After lean times in 2007 and 2008, he won the 2009 Transitions but nothing since as a series of back injuries bedevilled him. Some relief came in 2014 but he has not built on a third-place finish at The Frys last autumn.
World rank: 289
Unlike Tiger, Harrington is in excellent shape physically. Yet so great has been the attrition on his short game, putting, psyche and confidence in six fraught years, one wonders if he’s capable of building on December’s long-awaited victory in the Indonesia Open. Missed cuts in Phoenix and San Diego, especially last Friday’s 79 at Torrey Pines, don’t augur well.