End of the Tiger Woods era


This relatively quiet week in the world of golf could be remembered as one of the most monumental in the annals of the game.

Though Tiger Woods has been off his form for months, history might well mark this week as the official end of his reign as a dominant player.

It’s his last week atop the Official World Golf Ranking after a run of 281 consecutive weeks at No. 1. It’s the longest run at No. 1 of his remarkable career.

On Monday, Nov. 1, 2010, a new name will ride atop the world rankings.

In a worst-case scenario for Woods, history remembers it as an event, the end of an era. In a best-case scenario, nobody remembers it at all with Woods going on to regain the top ranking and rewrite the rest of golf’s record book.

If Germany’s Martin Kaymer wins the Andalucia Valderrama Masters Sunday or finishes in a tie for second with no more than one other player, he’s the world’s new No. 1. If Kaymer doesn’t, England’s Lee Westwood moves up.

Tiger Woods PGA Championship
Woods spent 281 consecutive weeks at No. 1. (Getty Images)

Here’s a compelling reality to the surreal season Woods is enduring.

If Woods wins the WGC-HSBC Champions next week, he’ll immediately seize back the No. 1 ranking.

This is supposed to be the down time in golf’s calendar, but next week’s World Golf Championship event in Shanghai is one of the most compelling events of the year. Woods, Westwood, Kaymer and Phil Mickelson all have a chance to gain the No. 1 ranking at the HSBC Champions. They’re all scheduled to play with Westwood entered despite some lingering issues with his ankle. It marks the first time more than two players have entered an event with a chance to win the No. 1 ranking since The Players Championship in 2005, according to Ian Barker, who coordinates the Official World Golf Ranking. Woods, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els teed it up with No. 1 up for grabs at TPC Sawgrass that year.

The top four players in this week’s rankings are separated by .33 points. That’s the closest bunching at the top since June of 1997, when Woods, Greg Norman and Els each spent time at No. 1.

There would be something fitting should Westwood succeed Woods on Monday.

It would be fitting because this change at the top in no way feels like the rise of a new No. 1. It feels solely about the fall of Woods, his steady competitive decline in the wake of the scandal that followed his crash into his neighbor’s fire hydrant and tree almost a year ago. It feels like it’s all about what Woods has lost, not what anyone else has won.

If Kaymer wins Sunday and ascends, it will be his fourth consecutive victory, and yet even that winning run wouldn’t trump the feeling this is all about Woods.

The giant question is whether Monday’s “event” signifies the official start of a new era in the game.

Is this week really a final chapter for Woods? Or just another transitional phase in his remarkable career?

The No. 1 ranking doesn’t mean nearly as much as Woods’ 14 major championship victories and 71 PGA Tour titles. It’s more what the loss of the No. 1 ranking will symbolize if Woods never wins another major or PGA Tour title. It will symbolize the end of the Woods’ era.

Mark down three-time PGA Tour winner Chris DiMarco among those who believes Woods will come back strong.

“That’s trivial,” DiMarco says of Woods losing his No. 1 ranking. “Because he hasn’t even cared about that, to tell you the truth.”

DiMarco waged that memorable playoff battle with Woods at the ’05 Masters, back when Woods had fallen to No. 2 in the world rankings. Woods’ playoff victory at Augusta National that Sunday helped him regain the No. 1 spot from Vijay Singh when the world rankings were released later that night.

“For years and years, if he doesn’t win after eight weeks, it’s `Tiger’s in a slump,’ and then he comes back and wins five in a row,” DiMarco said Tuesday during media day for the Children’s Miracle Network Classic in Orlando, Fla. “Until he doesn’t win for two or three years in a row, you’ll never see me writing him off.

“All he’s doing is, probably, hoping this year gets over. I’m sure he went through a lot of humility this year. It’s a hard thing. I’m sure he can take people rooting against him, and telling him he’s not good at golf, but to hear personal things, I’m sure it’s tough to focus out there. I’ve always said the strongest thing about Tiger is how focused he is. I’ve never seen anybody be able to focus on the first tee like it’s the 72nd hole to win a tournament. He could do that week in and week out. You can see the lack of focus out there this year.

“I fully see him back, and I fully see him winning a lot of tournaments and contending in majors and probably winning majors.”

Of course, not everyone sees it that way.

“His golf peers are not afraid of him anymore, and there seems to be a new crop of players coming up and the Tiger era is already finished,” five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson told Australian Golf Digest in its November issue. “I think his lustre is gone . . . he won’t be the dominating figure, and he won’t win.”

Fellow Aussie Greg Norman wasn’t as harsh at the Shark Shootout media day last week, but he sees a hard road ahead for Woods.

“He’ll come back and win tournaments, but he won’t be as dominant as he used to be,” Norman said. “I think he still has a chance to catch Jack [Nicklaus]. I think the chances are getting slimmer and slimmer, though.”

When Woods last lost the No. 1 ranking to Singh late in 2004, he needed 27 weeks to get it back. The two battled back and forth before Woods took command again.

The way Woods thoroughly thrashed Francesco Molinari in Ryder Cup singles in his last public appearance on a golf course, the way he flashed his dominant form of old with seven birdies and an eagle over 15 holes, we shouldn’t be surprised if Woods starts another long run at No. 1 at the HSBC Champions. Then again, after he failed to follow up his terrific 66 with the thrilling closing eagle on Saturday of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in June, we shouldn’t be surprised if he needs more than 27 weeks this time.

We know this is Woods’ last week at No. 1 in his latest run. We’ll have to wait for history to tell us whether that makes this a monumental week or not.