Commentary

Players admit tour needs Tiger to return

Originally Published: February 19, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

For more than eight months, there has been a void -- and every player in golf knows it. Whether it was the major championships he missed, the regular PGA Tour events he was forced to skip, his effect on the world rankings, money list, television ratings -- nearly every aspect of the professional game has been affected while Tiger Woods rehabbed his left knee.

Now he is coming back.

Still the world's No. 1-ranked player despite not having competed since June 16, the day he defeated Rocco Mediate in a playoff to win the U.S. Open, Woods announced Thursday on his Web site that he will make next week's Accenture Match Play Championship his first tournament since reconstructive knee surgery.

While his peers know that Woods' presence provides them less in the way of trophies, ranking points and monetary rewards and will likely make their pursuit of lofty goals all the more difficult, only a player buried in a sand trap doesn't wish to have him back.

"Tiger is good for golf," said Rich Beem, whose 2002 PGA Championship victory relegated Woods to his first runner-up finish in a major. "I'm not sure there is a player out here who is saying, 'Oh, gosh, I hope Tiger doesn't come back anytime soon.' I think if we say it, we're damn sure joking about it.

"Look what Tiger has done for the game, for everybody. … We're all excited about him coming back. I just wish he'd shut up and quit getting on 'SportsCenter' more than any other golfer out here and just come on back!"

Beem was beaming when saying that, but his good humor notwithstanding, Woods' absence undoubtedly overshadowed the game.

For the first time since the 1996 PGA Championship, a major championship went on without him last summer at the British Open, where Padraig Harrington overtook 53-year-old Greg Norman to win a memorable major -- even without Woods.

Despite a compelling story line -- Norman would have become the oldest major champion in history with a victory -- the overnight ratings for the final round were off by nearly 15 percent, according to Nielsen Media Research.

A few weeks later, Harrington defeated Sergio Garcia to become the first European since 1930 to win the PGA Championship. The PGA Championship had a 3.0 rating, down 55 percent from 2007, when Woods won the title.

"We need him back out here," said PGA Tour player Brandt Snedeker. "We want him back. As much as it is fun playing without him out here and giving new guys chances to win, I think everybody wants to beat Tiger when they win or play against him. We want him back out here winning and doing things for golf. We've seen the emergence of some new guys, Anthony [Kim], Camilo [Villegas] and Sergio [Garcia]. … All those played great the past year. That's helped build golf up a little bit.

"That said, it's like when [Michael] Jordan went away from basketball, the game suffered for a few years. I don't know if we'll ever have another Tiger Woods and you hate to see him not playing, especially because of an injury. You want to see him chasing all of these records. I'm like everybody else: I'm a fan of golf.

"What's best for the game of golf is him back and winning. This economy, these times, it's a hard sell for a lot of sponsors. But with him back and doing what he does makes it a whole lot easier."

Woods had surgery June 24 to replace the torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The knee has been problematic for Woods over the years, and this was the fourth surgery on it. The third occurred just two days after the Masters and was meant to get him through the rest of the 2008 season.

I actually think [Tiger will] come back better. He's proved over the years he's a guy that plays much better with rest, and he's very good at coming into tournaments without the competition. He's very good at playing cold, and I do believe he'll come back better over time.

-- Three-time major winner Padraig Harrington

But in his zest to rehab the knee in time for last year's U.S. Open, Woods said he suffered two stress fractures in the left leg. That, ultimately, is what caused him so much pain during his Open victory.

"I think he's going to be as good as he's ever been," said his friend Chris Riley, who grew up playing junior golf with Woods in Southern California. "He's the best player ever and I'm excited to have him back. The tour really needs it, especially with this time that we're in economically. It's going to be great."

Woods' victory at the U.S. Open was his 65th PGA Tour title, putting him eight behind Jack Nicklaus, who is second on the all-time victory list to Sam Snead's 82. It was also Woods' 14th major title, leaving him four behind Nicklaus' leading total of 18.

If his game comes around in the next month, it will make for a very interesting Masters, where Woods last won in 2005 and where Harrington will be attempting to win his third straight major championship -- which would be a first since Woods did it in 2000-2001.

"I actually think he'll come back better," Harrington said. "He's proved over the years he's a guy that plays much better with rest, and he's very good at coming into tournaments without the competition. He's very good at playing cold, and I do believe he'll come back better over time.

"I kind of also believe that, like any player who is forced to take a break from the game, they come back from that with enthusiasm and love for the game; they've missed it. When something is taken away from you, you want it even more.

"It's kind of hard to believe I'm saying he might even want to win a tournament more than he did before."

That is probably true.

As Hank Haney, Woods' coach, said recently, "He left having won 10 of his last 13, with two seconds and a fifth, so he isn't looking just to participate."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com