The name has changed — nice knowing you, Mercedes; hello, SBS Championship — but last week’s Hawaiian romp fulfilled its traditional role by kicking off the PGA Tour season with an enjoyable mix of jaw-dropping scenery and bushels of birdies. The tournament may have also heralded something more momentous: a new era in professional golf. This has only a little to do with the new grooves rule. The SBS was the first official Tour event that required reshaped grooves on irons with 25 or more degrees of loft, effectively reducing the amount of spin that can be imparted from the rough. Even with the wide fairways and huge greens of Kapalua’s Plantation course, the early returns suggested that this year there will be an uptick in finesse, shotmaking and creative thinking, three skills lost as the Tour went caveman in the first decade of the 21st century. By the end of the week Geoff Ogilvy had emerged as the most adroit early adopter, shooting a stellar six-under 67 on Sunday to pull out a one-stroke victory over Rory Sabbatini and reaffirm his standing as one of the most talented players in the game. But as has been the case since Black Friday (Nov. 27, 2009), Tiger Woods loomed large by his absence.
There was a funny feeling in the humid island air — after having spent the last 13 years oppressed by Woods’s greatness, suddenly his colleagues were trying to make sense of his disappearing act. One of the game’s truth tellers, Ogilvy broke a taboo by saying, “I think it’s an interesting time, obviously. Number 1 in the world might be up for realistic grabs this year depending on how it all takes shape.” This followed Colin Montgomerie’s recent remarks about Woods to BBC Radio: “He will come back, but whether he will retain that mystique as an iconic player, I’m not sure…. There is no question there was an aura about Tiger Woods over this incredible record he has. That wall has been split slightly, and there are cracks. It gives us more opportunity to find ways of winning.”
For many players the SBS was their first time facing the press since the Woods scandal broke. The mere mention of his name left some of them visibly uncomfortable. Asked a relatively innocuous Tiger-related question, amiable Paul Casey forced a smile and said, “Why don’t you just hand me a grenade?” Woods’s astonishing fall from grace has been the talk of every workplace, and at Kapalua it was no different. The players expressed just as much disbelief and confusion as the rest of us, but it was also tinged with more than a little anxiety. “I wish he would come back as soon as possible,” said Lucas Glover. “It makes us play better, makes the Tour look better, makes the sponsors happier, all that stuff.” There were only 28 players in the SBS field, but the purse was a robust $5.6 million, with $1.12 million going to Ogilvy; Heath Slocum and Mark Wilson, who tied for last, scooped up $70,500 each. Woods’s colleagues know he is directly responsible for all the funny money, and lasting damage to Tiger’s brand — and, by extension, the Tour’s — will be felt in their wallets.
But the big-picture jitters also come with an unparalleled sense of opportunity, as Ogilvy and Monty pointed out. In the 21st century Woods has been No. 1 in the World Ranking for all but 32 weeks. Steve Stricker, coming off a career year and currently No. 3, admits, “I’ve never, ever thought about being Number 1.” And now? “Get off to a really hot start, and who knows what can happen?” he says. As recently as Thanksgiving Day many players were privately conceding Woods this year’s U.S. and British Opens, to be played at Pebble Beach and the Old Course, respectively. The last time golf enjoyed this double dip, in 2000, Woods won the Opens by a combined 23 strokes. But with Tiger such a question mark, “I guess that gives all of us some hope,” says Stricker.
Even pals like Stricker have no feel for when Woods will return. But coming back is only the first step. For all of his wondrous physical gifts, Woods’s mental toughness was always his greatest strength. With his carefully cultivated image shattered, his family potentially torn asunder and a once-adoring public now turned largely hostile, it is not a given that Tiger will ever again regain the focus, intensity and desire that defined him as a player.
Not for nothing, Woods will also be the last guy on Tour to break in the less aggressive grooves under tournament conditions. (Only Woods’s wedges will be affected, since he already plays conforming irons.) The Plantation course is framed by wiry Bermuda rough, and throughout the SBS, players reported all manner of unpredictable shots. On the 3rd hole of the first round Pat Perez airmailed the green with his approach — an eight-iron — and later offered this play by play: “As soon as I hit it, I looked up and said, ‘Holy s—, that ball is 20 feet higher than it should be, and it ain’t coming down.'” Around the greens players were also forced to adapt to what Stewart Cink calls “the trickle,” as chips and pitches that initially seemed well-judged agonizingly rolled (and rolled and rolled) past the flag. “Putting is going to be huge this year,” says Perez. “All those shots from the short side, where the ball used to stop next to the flag, now those are going to be six-, eight-, 10-footers.”
It’s a quaint way to play the game: Keep it in the fairway, lay up to a certain yardage, miss on the correct side of the green. Ball-control players who used to feel overwhelmed by the Tour’s bombers are now seeing an increased appreciation for their skills. “I love the new rule,” says Zach Johnson, who ranked 143rd in driving distance but 28th in greens hit in regulation last year. “It definitely plays to my strengths, but that’s only on paper. You still have to go play.”
The SBS provided a tantalizing opportunity, since it might have been the easiest tournament to win in the history of the PGA Tour: the tiny field featured plenty of players who were rusty or enjoying a working vacation — or both — and only Ogilvy had ever won on the Plantation course. Tied for third after two rounds, he was queried about the larger meaning of taking the first tournament since Woods smashed up his Escalade, and his career. “I don’t think guys win tournaments to send messages,” said Ogilvy, who is now up to ninth in the World Ranking. “Guys win tournaments because they want to win tournaments. It would be nice because it would move me up the ranking a little bit. [But] I wouldn’t sit there on Monday morning at home thinking, Isn’t it great they are all thinking Geoff is supposed to be Number 1 this year?”
We know who is supposed to be No. 1; we simply don’t know when he’ll be back or if he’ll be the same player. (Or, for that matter, where he’s currently hiding.) In Woods’s absence the game needs new heroes. Last week it was Ogilvy’s turn, but the void remains.