Golfers Thrive in Tiger’s Absence

Kyle Blum

Going into this year’s golfing season, many people expected Tiger Woods to be playing the best golf of his career. Tiger did not disappoint. His starting performance of the season at the Buick Invitational was dominant, as he won by eight shots. When he followed it up with three more wins (Dubai Dessert Classic, Accenture Match Play Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational) he looked unstoppable. Then Tiger was forced to the sidelines for over a month when he had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee for the second time in five years.

His return date was set for the US Open, and Tiger entered the tournament without being the favorite for the first time in recent memory. Some experts thought it would be an accomplishment for him to simply make the cut, considering he hadn’t played a full eighteen holes before he teed it up for Thursday’s opening round. Despite the fact that he was in obvious pain for much of the tournament, Tiger emerged triumphant after an eighteen-hole playoff with his close friend Rocco Mediate. Unfortunately, his most impressive win of the season, and possibly of his career, would be the last tournament Tiger would be able to play this year after he was forced to have another surgery to repair knee damage.

Tiger’s absence from the PGA Tour in the second half of the season has created an opportunity for other golfers to have a turn in the spotlight. This leaves the PGA like the NBA during Michael Jordan’s two year absence while he played professional baseball. It was as if golf became a fair fight again. Since the US Open, there have been nine different winners on tour. Most importantly, several of the game’s top players (the ones who have theoretically been Tiger’s potential challengers) have thrived on the absence of golf’s greatest player.

Anthony Kim has emerged as the game’s most talented young player. Kim won twice on tour this season at the AT&T National and the Wachovia Championship. Were it not for some poor putting on Sunday at the British Open, he might have been able to claim his first major. In just his second season on tour, Kim gained valuable confidence from his two wins this season; wins he might not have been able to get if Tiger was in the field. That confidence will be invaluable to Kim when he inevitably goes head to head with Tiger next season.

Another player who has played well this season is Padraig Harrington. Harrington won both of this season’s final two major championships, the British Open and the PGA Championship. Tiger has never lost a major when holding at least a share of the lead going into the final round. But, he’s also never come from behind on Sunday to win a major. Harrington started out of the lead on Sunday for both of his major wins. Usually it’s game over when Tiger holds the lead on Sunday, but Harrington has proven that he can handle Sunday pressure in a major. He will certainly be brimming with confidence when he defends his major titles next season.

The player who seems to have capitalized the most in Tiger’s absence is Vijay Singh. Singh, who is the only player other than Tiger to have been ranked number one in the world in the past five years, is currently a favorite to win this season’s Fed Ex cup. He has won both of the last two tournaments, at The Barclays and the Deutsche Bank Championship, and seems to be putting better than he ever has. He made three putts outside of thirty feet in his final round at the Deutsche Bank, including a sixty-footer on the back nine to put himself out of the reach of his competitors. Singh, who has been one of the best ball strikers in the world for the last decade, has often been criticized for his poor putting performances. However, if he can roll the ball as well as he did last weekend, he has the game to compete with anyone on tour, including Tiger.

When Tiger returns sometime next season, he is likely to be the best player in the world once again. However, the PGA Tour he left was dormant and fearful of his presence. Players teed up knowing they couldn’t beat him. Whether he played well or not, Tiger was able to win by simply intimidating his opponents. The PGA Tour that Tiger left behind is no more. Players that once cowered in his presence will have a season full of positive memories to draw upon when they look to take him down in 2009. It’s going to be a very interesting golf season next year.