There's a lot of justifiable hand-wringing going on among those associated with golf that without Tiger Woods, the profile index of the PGA Tour will slip to something approximating that of pro bowling or curling.
As a result, there's talk among golf commentators about how the PGA needs to begin promoting other players so that there won't be such a huge drop in interest - especially in TV ratings - when Woods isn't playing. (A much-quoted Los Angeles Times article indicated that when Tiger played and was in contention, the ratings on CBS and NBC golf telecasts were up an average of 111 percent.)
The hard truth here is that pro golf has been flirting dangerously with something I can best describe as a general malaise in terms of spectator interest for a couple of decades and that the Tiger Phenomenon has simply masked that fragile condition.
The game's Golden Era featured its own Four Horsemen - Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and Trevino - who were also supported by an identifiable supporting cast of characters such as Billy Casper, Don January, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Orville Moody and Raymond Floyd earlier and the likes of Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw and Greg Norman later.
Again, truth be told, I'll wager that golf enthusiasts and casual sports fans are more familiar with the names of players who were stars before 1990 than guys who have been winning on the PGA Tour since. That's why the Seniors Tour (now Champions Tour) was such a hit when it got rolling in the mid-1980s. Those guys might not have hit the ball as far as the younger players on the regular tour, but they had something else going for them - individual styles or engaging personalities, something fans could latch onto.
But then Tiger Woods came along in 1996, an All-American superstar who was simply Ruthian - huge drives off the tee, iron shots that bit and scurried to the pin, putts that snaked their way into the hole - and who has scooped up trophies (and dollars) by the armload. Also, Woods has been universal in his appeal, promoting traditional values of hard work and perseverance while also personifying stylish success in the 21st century.
And golf has shamelessly ridden his coattails for more than a decade.
Certainly there are many current pro golfers who are skilled and articulate and just plain good guys. But there have not been enough like the late Payne Stewart who have the charisma to fire up a fan base as does the captivating Tiger Woods. The world's No. 2, Phil Mickelson - for all his 34 Tour wins and three majors, including two Green Jackets - is best known as Woods' most likely foil in any tournament in which the two play.
Last weekend, a journeyman named Rocco Mediate came out of nowhere and charmed a national television audience in what was truly a sports happening. Years from now, people will be able to tell you where they were when they watched that U.S. Open playoff.
Mediate's easygoing, wisecracking everyman reminded me of Lee Trevino, the kind of pro golfer that a public course duffer could identify with. But Trevino's enduring popularity was built on his considerable achievements that came as part of the total package along with his immense likability. Mediate would need to add some victories to his resume to approach Trevino status and help golf's star-power crisis in the absence of Tiger.
I don't know what the answer is for pro golf. If there is a popularity problem for the game with Tiger missing from the scene - and there absolutely is - it's really a deeper underlying problem that has been out there for a while. And that special magic appeal, be it charisma or dramatic tension, isn't something you can deliberately concoct. It just happens - as it did just a few days ago at the U.S. Open.