With talk of economic doom and gloom all around us, golf is feeling the effects

With talk of economic doom and gloom all around us, golf is feeling the effects

Camilo Villegas's game has Tiger-esque qualities, but it needs refinement
Jeff Roberson/AP

Let’s hope the dawn comes soon, because right now it’s getting pretty dark in the golf world. The economic problems facing the United States (and the rest of the world) are casting a cloud over the game.

We’ve recently learned that Ginn Resorts is pulling its tournament sponsorships. U.S. Bank will no longer sponsor the PGA Tour event in Milwaukee. The LPGA Tour, which has three fewer events on this season’s calendar than last season’s, has yet to get a sponsor for the event in Phoenix. There are whispers everywhere about which name might be the next one scratched from the schedule.

Companies that are still involved in golf are keeping a very low profile. Chrysler had its name removed from the Bob Hope Classic. In Scottsdale, it didn’t seem like the tournament’s sponsor, FBR, had any executives or employees at the event. In San Diego, Buick’s executives were conspicuously few and far between.

It’s unfortunate, but understandable. This week at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, I’ll be very curious to see which CEOs play alongside the tour pros and celebrities. In this climate, it might not look good for the head of a company to be seen playing golf and rubbing elbows with the stars. It’s unfortunate that golf is somehow made to be the whipping boy for this economic malaise. Why not all the excessive, guaranteed contracts in baseball and basketball?

Unfortunately, the darkness has settled over fans and regular golfers too. I can’t help but feel that we’re in a time when people are almost afraid to be seen having fun. That somehow, with so much bad news on TV and negative sentiment out there, laughing and enjoying yourself has become almost politically incorrect. Golf clubs everywhere are losing members.

The one thing that could help is the return of Tiger Woods, which might happen at the WGC-Accenture Match Play or possibly the WGC-CA Championship at Doral.

Sports fans around the world have been waiting for eight months for him to come back, and now that Tiger’s wife has given birth to the couple’s second child, Charlie Axel Woods, all we’re waiting for is Tiger to feel 100% ready. Whenever he comes back, it will be front-page news on nearly every paper around the world, and a huge shot in the arm for the game. It will be the sports story of 2009, and it can’t happen soon enough.

In Tiger’s absence we have waited to see who might fill the gap. At best, Phil Mickelson has been inconsistent. Anthony Kim, Vijay Singh and Camilo Villegas have all played very well at times.

In many ways, Villegas reminds me of the player Tiger was back in 1998 and ’99. He is gaining confidence, which is very important, and he’s clearly a driven person. But like Woods early in his career, Villegas needs to develop a fuller repertoire of shots.

You might recall that when Tiger first came onto the tour, he hit almost all his wedge shots hard, with full swings that produced tons of spin. But Woods quickly adapted and learned to hit half-wedges, three-quarter wedges and other touch shots. Villegas needs to do the same thing. When Camilo is playing his A-game, he’s as good as anybody, but he needs a B-game to fall back on when he’s not playing well. If he is as driven as I think he is, Villegas will learn to hit more shots in match conditions, and that’s when his full potential might be realized.

My Parting Shot: Who wants it more?
Ultimately, the question Villegas and Tiger’s other would-be challengers have to answer is this: Are you willing to pay the price to be the best?
As the book 'Talent is Over-Rated,' by Geoff Colvin, explains, sport superstars are not just blessed with the most God-given talent. They simply work harder than the competition. Everyone rightly credits Vijay Singh for his phenomenal work ethic, and it is fantastic, but no one works harder than Tiger.

I don’t think there are very many people who are willing to sacrifice as Woods has, for as long as he has, but that’s how you get to be the world’s best. The challenge for all those who would hope to reach No.1 … How badly do you want it?