A World Without Tiger: What Next?

A World Without Tiger: What Next?

In the days before the 1972 PGA Championship, Jack Nicklaus got the first (and only) manicure of his life. The pointer finger on his right hand became infected and a heavily bandaged Nicklaus was forced to invent a new grip for the PGA, where he finished 13th. This is what usually passes for courage in golf: overcoming a manicure.

The news today that Tiger Woods has been playing with a ruptured ACL since last summer, and that this week he won the U.S. Open with two related stress fractures, will certainly burnish his considerable legend. According to a news release from Woods’s management company, IMG, he first injured his left knee last July while jogging. Since then all he’s done is win nine out of 12 tournaments, including two majors.

Along the way he has produced a lifetime’s worth of highlights, including two epic winning putts on the 72nd hole (Dubai, Bay Hill) and an outrageous comeback against J.B. Holmes at the Match Play. All of these heroics were topped by his performance at Torrey Pines, in what will go down as one of the most exciting major championships of all time and could very well be the greatest of Woods’s 65 career victories.

Limping and grimacing across the longest course ever used for a major, Woods conjured eagles like it was the Bob Hope, made one of the most clutch 72nd hole birdies in the annals of the game and gutted out a 19 hole playoff while his knee was basically a mortar and pestle. Woods is surely bummed to miss the rest of the season but I have no doubt that in his mind winning this U.S. Open was worth it.

He wanted the first Open at Torrey Pines, badly, just as he wanted the millennium Open Championship at St. Andrews and Nicklaus’s farewell to the Masters in the ’05. These milestones mean something to Woods, an enthusiastic student of golf history. It was his pursuit of Byron Nelson’s record of 11 straight victories that compelled Woods to put off knee surgery in the first place. As always, Tiger has a flair for the dramatic. By shutting it down now he has ensured that it is the images of Torrey that will linger.

So where do we go from here?

The rest of the summer will certainly be less interesting and entertaining but it’s a golden opportunity for his oppressed colleagues to right themselves. (And, without Woods’s huge presence to unsettle his teammates, the U.S. actually has a chance to win the Ryder Cup now.) Phil Mickelson craved a victory at Torrey just as much as Woods, as he too has been playing the course since he was a boy. But Phil’s spirit was broken during the second round when Tiger dropped a back-nine 30 on his dome. Mickelson has been trying to get his career back on track ever since his final hole meltdown at the 2006 Open. Having turned 38 this week, and facing a Tigerless summer, it’s now or never for poor Phil. And he knows it.

No one has suffered more from Woods’s hegemony than Ernie Els, but the Big Easy has been showing some spunk lately. His ballstriking at Torrey was spectacular, but as always Els made the big mistake, in this case a fatal triple bogey on Sunday. Els is an interesting case because he had his own ACL injury in the summer of ’05. He has said that most of the ensuing scar tissue is mental, which should give all of us hope that Woods will return to his old form. For all his wondrous physical gifts, it is Woods’s mind that is his biggest advantage. If he has been so good over the last year on one leg, what is he capable of when he is whole?

Maybe this injury is the best thing that could have happened to Woods. It will give him the longest break from the game he has ever had, and upon returning he will have to tweak his swing to take some of the torque off his left leg. Woods has always needed a challenge to keep him engaged — after all, the guy has won the Masters with three different swings. Nicklaus’s record of 18 career majors has always driven Woods. When Tiger returns next year he will be chasing the ghost of an even greater golfer: himself, pre-surgery.

Expect him to get back to where he was, and then some.