PGA: In Tiger we trust

IAN HUTCHINSON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:43 AM ET

All is right with the world now that Tiger Woods is returning to the PGA Tour at this week's Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson. Or is it?

There has been a gaping void in golf since that classic playoff at the U.S. Open last June between Tiger and Rocco Mediate that netted Woods his 14th major championship and put him within range of catching Jack Nicklaus for the career lead in that department, conceivably this year.

To reach that prestigious goal, of course, would take a single-season Grand Slam, which is unlikely. But we are talking about Tiger who, as he demonstrated once again at Torrey Pines, has a knack for the dramatic, which keeps the fans riveted.

That vision of a wincing Woods hobbling to win the U.S. Open on one leg is what hung with us for nearly nine months after he went directly to reconstructive surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and cartilage damage in his left knee, as well as fractures in his left tibia.

The speculation on whether Woods made the right choice in coming back this week is already under way, and it's a whole lot of wasted time and energy over nothing.

One opinion is that Woods shouldn't have picked a match-play event because he could be eliminated after his first match, which wouldn't prove anything about the state of his knee. Or, he could go six matches to win the event, which could be too much for the knee. Others say the hilly course also may have an adverse effect.

It's as if Woods is the first elite athlete ever to undergo knee surgery. If he is to return to his pre-surgery self -- and there's no reason to think he won't -- then match play and hilly courses are part of the deal. There comes a time when you need to shake the competitive rust off and just play.

Woods has made that decision and that should be good enough based on his history, but some have nothing better to do than over-analyze a positive moment for the tour that fans have been anticipating for months. That goes with the territory when it involves the world's No. 1 player.

The neon is cranked to the max with Tiger back to brighten a gloomy economic picture. Behind the glare of this good-news story, the tour can breathe easier, but shouldn't be content because Woods' absence highlighted concerns.

While Woods was on the shelf, some positive things took place on tour, including the emergence of young stars such as Anthony Kim, Camilo Villegas and Dustin Johnson.

A fine Ryder Cup ended with the Americans breaking their run of futility against the Europeans, Padraig Harrington won both the British Open and PGA Championship and it remains to be seen if he might become that long-awaited chief rival for Woods.

All of this was good news for the tour with Woods out and the economy tanking. But here is the key fact: TV ratings plummeted, even with all of those non-Tiger stories going on. Of course, the tour wants to ride the popularity of Woods, but is it counting too heavily on the big guy?

The PGA Tour is not the one-trick pony it is perceived to be by the casual fans that Tiger brought to golf in droves but, rightly or wrongly, that image is reality. It needs to change for the long-term health of the tour before Woods retires, but the foreseeable future has more pressing concerns such as the economy.

PRESENT, FUTURE

Tour commissioner Tim Finchem has asked players to consider adding one or two more tournaments to their schedules in this tough economic climate, but Woods was selective about his schedule before his surgery and is even more unlikely to change now with a suspect knee.

That's the present. Let's look at the near future, as well.

At age 33, Woods will have put the exclamation mark on his legendary career in about seven years, barring unforeseen circumstances. Whether he plays regularly after the age of 40 would be only speculation at this point. But that legitimate question should be enough for the tour to consider life without Tiger.

The goal of the tour, and the game in general, should be to turn those casual fans that Woods has attracted into the hardcore golfers and fans that are its foundations.

The slumping television ratings during Woods' absence and the stagnant participation levels in the game would indicate that isn't happening.

That fact shouldn't be lost in the glare of Tiger's return.It would be a shame to think that the benefits he brought to the game in terms of casual fan support one day might be looked at as a lost opportunity for the game and the tour.


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