If there was ever a single snapshot which could vividly illustrate Tiger Woods’ domain as the most polarizing and prominent figure in golf, it occurred on the afternoon of Aug. 6 in the Valhalla Golf Club parking lot – and he wasn’t even there.
One day before the start of the PGA Championship – and just three days after he’d withdrawn from the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational with a recurring back injury – Woods’ parking space was surrounded by a few dozen television crews and reporters, all eagerly awaiting his expected arrival. As they affixed their lenses on the empty spot, the game’s No. 1-ranked player emerged. Carrying the claret jug and wearing a bemused grin on his face, Rory McIlroy surveyed the scene and strode past without so much as a double-take from the awaiting throng.
Now, it can be argued that this scene is more of a statement on the media’s obsession with Woods than that of the public, but I’d argue in return that such attention is simply a reflection on overall interest. Call it the law of supply and demand. If the public didn’t demand this type of coverage, the media wouldn’t supply it.
During a year in which Woods failed to add to his major championship total, didn’t win, didn’t claim a top 10, dropped to 29th in the world, missed three months after undergoing microdiscectomy surgery and still remained a headliner in more ways than one, it was a stark reminder that, as one of my colleagues so deftly puts it, he doesn’t move the needle. He is the needle.
All of which has resulted in Woods becoming Golf Channel’s No. 3 Newsmaker of 2014.
This announcement should come as less of a surprise than just about anything else in Woods’ ever-changing world this year.
Fresh off a five-win season, many predicted this would be the year Woods finally inched closer to Jack Nicklaus’ all-time major record and once again asserted his dominance over the ever-expanding field of elite-echelon players. It never had a chance to happen, though.
His first start of the year came at Torrey Pines, a course on which he’s won eight times as a pro. A third-round 80 kept him from making the secondary cut. The next week he competed in Dubai, with only a marginally better result – a share of 41st place.
And that was actually the good news.
Woods withdrew from the Honda Classic with that aforementioned back injury. He gutted his way through a painful final round at Doral. Following surgery and ensuing recovery, he returned to miss the cut at his own Quicken Loans National, then finish T-69 at the Open Championship, WD at Firestone and MC at the PGA – a maelstrom of unfortunate alphabet soup.
If his on-course performance – or lack of it – wasn’t enough to grab attention, then the never-ending news cycle swirling around him certainly was.
Hardly a week went by when there wasn’t some tidbit of varying newsworthiness emanating from Camp Woods.
He went into the restaurant business. He went on “The Tonight Show.” He signed endorsement deals with Muscle Pharm and Hero. He flamed author Dan Jenkins for a satirical column. He opened the first course from his design business.
He was even in the news when it wasn’t him causing it. His former coach Hank Haney said he was too muscular. Fellow player Graeme McDowell insisted he’s lost his invincibility. Rory McIlroy claimed he’s on the back nine of his career.
Toward the end of the year, following a four-month layoff, Woods returned. With a new sponsor, a new (for one year only) venue and a new reason for optimism, he competed in the Hero World Challenge at Isleworth, home to his former residence. While his swing looked better than it had all year, his short game resembled a high-handicapper’s, as he duffed nine chip shots during four rounds that left him in a share of last place when it was over.
As he slammed the trunk on a lost year from a performance perspective, words he uttered just before that final event still echoed.
“Father Time is undefeated,” he said. “We all eventually are losing some of the things we are able to do when we were younger.”
When he returns in 2015, Woods will again be chasing his former self, trying to turn back the clock on a career that was stuck in neutral this year.
Whether he can accomplish that remains perilously in doubt. The only thing we know for certain is that when the next year ends, win or lose, he’ll undeniably be one of the game’s top newsmakers once again.