Golf's landscape shifts from Tiger to the pack

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Charles Howell III was feeling nostalgic and it had nothing to do with the veteran’s sordid history with the 18th hole on Torrey Pines’ South Course.

The view of the PGA Tour landscape had shifted dramatically long before Tiger Woods announced on Wednesday he was stepping away from professional golf until "my game is tournament-ready."

To be clear, Howell, despite Woods’ early exit from Torrey Pines with a back injury, his third early exit in his last eight official Tour starts, is not among the growing number who have declared the end of the Tiger era on Tour.

“I’d still like to see Tiger get healthy and make another big run. I’d like to see him play another five years or so,” Howell said Sunday at the Farmers Insurance Open.

But that still doesn’t change the reality on the ground. Best intentions aside, Woods – at least the current version who has played just nine Tour events in almost a year and a half – is no longer the gold standard.

“I am so used to seeing him beating my generation’s head in,” said Howell, who once ricocheted his approach shot off the flagstick on the 18th hole and into Devlin’s Billabong for a bogey to finish runner-up to Woods at the Farmers Insurance Open.

“I’m used to looking up and seeing him shooting 61, 62 on the North Course [at Torrey Pines] and you’re just waiting for that Woods [name] to pop up on that leaderboard. That’s what generation I’m in.”

Howell joined the Tour in 2001, the same year Woods won his second Masters and his fourth major in his last five Grand Slam starts. Over the next nine seasons the guy in red and black would win 47 Tour titles, all before turning 34 years old.

It wasn’t a question of if he would run down Jack Nicklaus’ mark of 18 major championships or Sam Snead’s 82 Tour titles; it was a matter of when.

Since turning 35, however, Woods has managed just eight Tour victories in 53 starts and has been plagued by a litany of injuries, most recently back surgery last season. Age and injury have combined with a growing list of would-be world-beaters to create a drastically altered reality.

“You look at all these good young players coming up now – the Justin Thomases and Jordan Spieths – everybody hits it 300 yards now, so that’s the motivation for me to work as hard as I do,” Howell said. “For a while there my biggest motivation was Tiger; now my motivating factor is all these 20-year-olds out here. It’s amazing how that changes.”

Most of Woods’ Tour frat brothers, at least publicly, warn that it would be a mistake to send Tiger into an early retirement just yet. He is, after all, just a year removed from a five-win season and his 11th PGA Tour Player of the Year award.

Privately, however, there is a growing sense that even if Woods can emerge from his current medical malady he no longer has the tools to dominate the way he once did.

Despite all the recent talk about Woods’ increased swing speed under new “consultant” Chris Como, he’s closer to the middle of the pack in driving distance (he ranked 50th, 49th, 32nd and 71st in driving distance the last four seasons) and his short-games woes since his return last December at the Hero World Challenge have been well documented.

Even PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem seemed to acknowledge the changing winds. While the “fan” in Finchem would rather see the former world No. 1 continue to challenge the history books, the executive seems to have come to grips with the distinct possibility that even if he’s not as prolific as he once was, he is still the game’s top draw.

“Candidly, I think when he tees it up, everybody in the world's going to want to see how he's going to play, because here you had a guy who was so incredibly good for such a long time, and he's struggling out there,” Finchem said last week at Torrey Pines. “I've said this before, but I think that Tiger has about a 10-year shelf life, in my view, in terms of, if he's not winning golf tournaments, people still want to watch Tiger Woods play golf.”

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement that the former alpha male will reconnect with his winning ways, nor does it seem likely Tiger would have any interest in a 10-year farewell tour. But such is life in the post-back surgery era. While most inside the game hope for the best many have started to prepare for something that’s less than ideal.

Some have said Woods’ woes are the byproduct of injury, others contend it’s a loss of motivation and confidence. Whatever the culprit, it will take years, not months, for this final chapter to be written. If nothing else, the man has proven himself infinitely resilient and a dogged competitor, regardless of the opponent.

But what is certain, his mere presence is no longer the primary driving force on the Tour. That target has shifted to a younger, healthier benchmark.