Reflections on 2008


You are the Insider. You are fresh from a weeks vacation in western North Carolina that included, among other things, a round of golf at a special Tom Fazio design called Brights Creek.
You have chilled out by watching a little playoff baseball (Oy, the Cubs); eating a lot of good food (Mmm, barbecue) and checking out the vice presidential debate (Palin loses on points but avoids the big gaffe).
While you are chilling you are chilled by the developments in the economy. The $700 billion bailout, after a false start, finally gets approved. And you wonder the exact affect all this news from Wall Street will have on golf. One thing is for sure, golf, like every other sector of our country, will be impacted. Time will tell us how and how much.
You also have enough spare time to sit back ruminate on what has happened on golfs biggest stages in 2008. There is a lot of important golf left for a lot of players. And the Fall Series is compelling enough for golf fans, if not necessarily so for the general sports fans who have moved on to football and the remains of the baseball season.
My reflections keep coming back to what a long shadow Tiger Woods casts over the game. When Woods shut his season down to have knee surgery after winning the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in June, that shadow was gone. And it gave several players a chance to get out from under his dominance.
Five players come immediately to mind. They are Anthony Kim, Sergio Garcia, Camilo Villegas (who played in the same threesome the first two days at the PGA Championship), Vijay Singh and Hunter Mahan. Tiger is still No. 1 by a wide margin and Phil Mickelson hangs onto the second spot.
But Singh has hustled his way back up to No. 3 on the strength of a FedEx Cup victory that earned him a cool $10 million. Would Big Daddy have had that kind of success and scored that kind of swag if Woods had been around? Not likely, it says here.
Garcia, Kim and Villegas hold down the fifth, sixth and seventh spots respectively in the world rankings. Mahan has come from relative obscurity and ranks No. 35 after a revealing Ryder Cup in which he showed the world how much game hes really got.
Sure there are others who benefitted from Woods absence. Padraig Harrington won two majors but hed already broken through at the British at Carnoustie in 2007. Kenny Perry dreamed of playing Ryder Cup golf in his home state of Kentucky. And he tailored his schedule. And he did what he set out to do. Critics be damned.
But Garcia, Kim, Villegas and Mahan, all still in their 20s, got the kind of face time they would not have received with a healthy Woods playing his normal brand of abnormal golf.
Garcia, Kim and Villegas, more so than the laid back Mahan, positively basked in the light. And this was every bit as good for golf ' which craves new blood and talent in the limelight ' as it was good for their three healthy egos.
Garcia didnt win a match at the Ryder Cup and Harrington chased him down from behind Sunday at Oakland Hills in the PGA. But he won a Players (while Woods was away getting ready for his brief comeback at Torrey Pines); he putted better; and he absolutely lived at the top of the leaderboards the last two months.
Kim captured Woods own event at historic Congressional after besting an elite field on an elite golf course (Quail Run) at Wachovia. He also thrashed Garcia in the marquee Sunday singles match at Valhalla in the Ryder Cup.
Villegas, he of the defined biceps and the refined short game, won the last two big events of the season ' the BMW Championship and the Tour Championship. Arguably, nobody has more momentum going into 2009 than the photogenic Colombian.
You can be sure Woods has taken notice of the advent of the young guns who would snatch his position in an instant if they sensed weakness. What you cant be sure of is how much Woods will listen to his doctors.
It may be the most important decision he ever makes as it relates to his golf career. To a man, all the players who have had reconstructive knee surgery, say they came back to soon and it slowed their return to form.
My gut feeling, listening to the words and watching the smoke signals coming out of the Woods camp, is that theres a good chance he wont be ready for the Masters in April. I wouldnt be surprised if his first event back is the U.S. Open at Bethpage where he won in 2002.
I hope I am wrong, but only if his knee is fully healed. Woods is the most precious resource we have at the top level of the game today. He must be conserved ' like a national park.
Anyway, until he returns, the players to watch for now are Singh and Mahan and, to a greater extent, the ascendant and flashy stars that are Garcia, Kim and Villegas.
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