Final round at Firestone offers a preview of golf without Tiger

Final round at Firestone offers a preview of golf without Tiger

With a win on Sunday, Ernie Els would be the only three-time winner on Tour this season.
Amy Sancetta/AP

AKRON, Ohio — Take a good look at the Bridgestone Invitational leaderboard, people. This is the future of professional golf in a Tiger-less world.

Ryan Palmer and Sean O’Hair in first place. Matt Kuchar in third. Also among those in the top 10: Ernie Els, Hunter Mahan, Justin Leonard and a Van Pelt — Bo, not Scott.

Big names? Other than Els, not really. Big talents? No question.

If the Tiger Woods spiral we’re seeing this week at Firestone Country Club continues much longer, golf may have to rely on a new selling point. (Tiger shot 75 Saturday, and he’s ahead of only two players.) Instead of a charismatic world-beater who wins in spectacular fashion like Tiger, or a smiling celebrity like Phil Mickelson, golf may have to rely on something new — the drama of tournament golf.

You’ve got 20 players within five shots of the lead at Firestone. Sunday’s final round has all-world, O.K. Corral-shootout potential. Just about anyone can win. A guy named Miyamoto fired a 62 in the third round and vaulted into contention. That’s Katsumasa Miyamoto, a 37-year-old Japanese player with an orange golf ball. He’s tied for 10th. He could win this thing. Who doesn’t love a good Cinderella story?

Also, he’s got a sense of humor, which came through despite a language barrier. Asked what it’s like to be back after playing the PGA Tour in 1999, Miyamoto joked, “Like Steve Stricker, I want the comeback show.”

Stars have to start somewhere. They’re made, not born. Even in the case of Tiger and Phil.

The Bridgestone leaderboard isn’t filled with golf’s sexiest names, but the truth is, Tiger and Phil have dominated for so long that they have largely precluded anyone else from becoming big names. The last time Tiger had an extended absence, Padraig Harrington stepped in and won back-to-back major championships to secure his legacy.

There is a major next week, the PGA Championship, and the Ryder Cup is on the horizon. This is a golden opportunity from someone to pull a Padraig and become a household name.

Start with Kuchar, who shot 66. He enjoyed a star turn as an amateur at the Masters. Like Mickelson, his normal expression appears to be a smile. People love that. Kuchar had some success early as a pro, then played his way onto the Nationwide Tour, and now has revamped his game with the help of teacher Chris O’Connell. Kuchar has quietly become one of the best American players on tour. He leads the PGA Tour in scoring average, is 10th in greens in regulation and ranks No. 1 in the all-around category of tour stats — a combination of all the categories.

The golf experts I’ve heard scoffing about Kuchar making the U.S. Ryder Cup team might want to look closer. Here’s a guy who’s on the verge of a breakout.

“When I was younger, I heard you’re going to make 80 percent of your money in 20 percent of the tournaments, but that’s never the guy I wanted to be,” said Kuchar, a former star at Georgia Tech. “I wanted to be the guy who had a chance just about every week. It’s been a great year. I hope to continue to improve.”

Kuchar has been a BMW all week — the ultimate driving machine. On Saturday, he missed only one of 14 fairways, and that came at the first hole, where he found himself in the fringe and still made birdie. Memo to experts: Straight is hard to beat at Firestone.

Another thing to like about him is his sense of humor. Asked about suddenly playing his way into the Ryder Cup standings, he grinned and said, “I’m doing everything I can not to talk about it. It’s one of those topics that is hard to avoid. Everybody is bringing it up. Thanks a lot.”

Palmer won in Hawaii at the start of this year when his heavy-handed chip shot luckily banged off the flagstick for a kick-in birdie that iced the victory. He also won the defunct Ginn sur Mer Classic in 2008 and Disney in 2004. Consistency has eluded him, the 33-year-old Texan admitted, but he piled up seven birdies and no bogeys en route to a 63 on Saturday.

Palmer has played in only a handful of major championships. He’s coming off a 10-week stretch in which he missed nine cuts. Part of it, he said, was due to playing with a set of irons that he only lately discovered was set up with the wrong specs. Maybe he’s finally hitting his stride.

Then there is O’Hair, who has been a star waiting to happen for a couple of years. His game has always been solid, and his putting and chipping have improved. O’Hair had four birdies and an eagle and shot 64. He’s brimming with quiet confidence. Maybe, just maybe, he’s the man to beat Sunday. He is a three-time winner and 19th in the Ryder Cup standings, also close to making the team.

If you’re picking an “All Nice Guy” team from the tour, O’Hair would be on it. He doesn’t brag or have a big ego. He was asked what he’s been doing to play himself into this position and answered, “Well, I’ve been playing solid golf for a while now. I know my game is there and I know I’m ready to win. It’s a shootout tomorrow. Whoever wins is going to be ready to play and be on top of his game, and I think I’m definitely capable of doing that.”

That’s confidence talking. You have to like that.

There are plenty of other reasons to like what could happen Sunday. A win by Els would make him the only three-time winner this year and the new leading candidate for player of the year.

Justin Leonard, among the group tied for fourth, could be one of the favorites for next week’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, where he lost in a playoff in 2004. Leonard could also make himself a very attractive wild-card pick for the Ryder Cup.

Young Americans Hunter Mahan and Jeff Overton could make statements. Dustin Johnson, who’s tied for 10th, could wipe out some of those bad memories from Pebble Beach.

Mickelson stumbled to a third-round 71. He’s four shots off the lead. He loves to make Sunday charges, and he’ll need one to win. If he finishes fourth or better, he’ll finally claim the No. 1 ranking that has eluded him.

The potential is there for drama on Sunday. A lot is on the line. Tiger won’t be part of it, but that’s OK. There is more to golf than one man — if you like golf. Do you?