Tiger Woods was too big to fail. And then he failed.
As much as anything, that familiar trope describes what began happening to golf 14 months ago, and never really stopped happening in 2010, ending with Woods blowing a four-shot lead to Graeme McDowell at the Chevron World Challenge in December. The result simultaneously showed how far Woods has fallen, and perhaps how close he is.
"I think having [Woods] return to his competitive level that he enjoyed for 14, 15 years has a positive effect on the sport," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said at Torrey Pines on Tuesday, understating the obvious.
Woods returns this week to the course where he's won seven times as a pro, and once as a junior, for the first time since he beat Rocco Mediate in a Monday playoff at the '08 U.S. Open. This will be the first 2011 Tour event on network TV (CBS), and Woods is one of many hoping that the 2011 Farmers signals a return to normal.
Mediate, who will be in a threesome with Woods and Anthony Kim for the first 36 holes — Finchem said such TV-friendly threesomes will become more common this year — believes Woods will reassert himself after dropping to third in the world behind Lee Westwood and No. 2 Martin Kaymer.
"Because he's Tiger," said Mediate, who won the Frys.com Open late last year to keep his card at age 48. "He's tired of seeing what he's seeing. He'll fix it.
"He's not going away," Mediate continued. "I still think he's the best player. I don't care what the rankings say. He's had a little bit off year. A lot of things happen, we all run into those weeks or months or years for that matter of not being able to get it done. Even him, he got to feel that. I guarantee you he doesn't like it. There is no way he'll stay where he is. He's always going to come back. If he starts driving his ball straight, he'll beat Jack's record."
Finchem and the rest of the Tour brass were always scheduled to work out a new TV contract this year, which is too bad for them since it's only been a year since Woods was revealed as prolific a womanizer as he was a winner.
Worse yet he stopped doing both at the same time, going without a victory for the first time in 2010. With his left knee in pre- and post-operative limbo (2008, '09), and his life in tatters (2010), he's missed significant playing time. Television ratings from the Farmers/Buick in 2010 and '09 were half of what they were with Woods winning in '08.
The first three winners of 2011, Jonathan Byrd, Mark Wilson and Jhonattan Vegas, are not exactly marquee names outside Byrd's house, Wilson's house, and Venezuela. Most marquee names play on the Euro tour. Salt in the wound for Finchem: Westwood says he'll skip the Players Championship and Rory McIlroy (7) might do the same.
The Tour is in a tight spot not because it intentionally placed Woods at the center of everything, but because Woods won so much it was inevitable. He won so much no one else could get enough traction to become a global icon, or even close to a global icon. (Okay, maybe Phil — more on him later.) And then quite suddenly Woods was gone. Now the health of the Tour hinges on his ability to come back.
Either that or Phil will have to pick up the slack (looks increasingly doubtful), or one of a dozen promising young players will have to suddenly become Tiger, circa 2000.
Mickelson, too, begins his Tour season at the Farmers, but he's played only a handful of good rounds since he won the 2010 Masters. He almost won at Quail Hollow (McIlroy beat him with a 62), and won his Ryder Cup singles match.
For Phil fans, that's been about it. He tied for 37th place at the Abu Dhabi HSBC (19 shots behind Kaymer) in his first trip to the desert last week, and faulted his short game, which was understandably rusty after two months off.
Rickie Fowler, who tied for fifth place at Torrey a year ago, skipped the Sony and the Hope this year, and also will start his 2011 season at scenic, seaside Torrey. He will lead a formidable brigade of 20-somethings that also includes 2010 Farmers runners-up Marc Leishman and Michael Sim.
Still, to look much beyond Woods in this field would be to ignore the obvious. Said defending Farmers champion Ben Crane, "It brings a level of credibility and excitement about the tournament." No kidding.
Europe gets new event The Volvo Golf Champions at the Montgomerie Course at Royal Golf Club in Bahrain, the ninth different Volvo-sponsored event on the European Tour since 1972, that will feature Paul Casey, Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington, Robert Karlsson, Matteo Manassero, Edoardo and Francesco Molinari, and Ian Poulter.
Newly announced 2012 European Ryder Cup captain Jose Maria Olazabal also is in the field.
Nicklaus/Watson defend The 50-and-overs will play the Ka'anapali Champions Skins Game, more of a reality show than a tournament, at Royal Ka'anapali in Lahaina.
Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson won nine of the first 10 skins, and 10 overall, to win last year's event. The other teams scheduled to play: Ben Crenshaw/Fuzzy Zoeller, Fred Couples/Nick Price and Bernhard Langer/Mark O'Meara.
Each player will donate 10 percent of his winnings to a charity of his choice.
Len Mattiace, 43, the 2003 Masters runner-up to Mike Weir, qualified Monday for the Farmers, as did Jason Gore, Jeff Hart and James Oh. ... John Daly, the 2004 Farmers champion, reportedly got an early start this week, playing 18 holes on the North Course on Sunday. ... Geoff Ogilvy withdrew because his finger still hasn't healed. Ricky Barnes (back) and Steve Elkington also withdrew, and one of the alternates who will get in is Andres Gonzales, whose mutton-chop mustache recalls the late San Francisco Giants reliever Rod Beck. ... Joseph Bramlett, who last month became the first black golfer to get through Q school in 25 years, has been given the Northern Trust (Feb. 17-20) Exemption into the event at L.A.'s Riviera C.C. The exemption aims to "advance diversity in professional golf." ... Steve Jones, 52, the 1996 U.S. Open champion, made his first start since the 2007 Reno-Tahoe Open — a span of 1,264 days — at last week's Bob Hope Classic, where he missed the cut. Said Jones, "People are shocked to see me." ... Members of the 1976-'77 Ohio State golf team won the last three Champions events: Rod Spittle at the AT&T Championship and John Cook at the Schwab and Mitsubishi Electric.