Tiger Woods’ decline has made golf more intriguing

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This is not merely change, which can mean nickel and dime. It is sea change.

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Tiger’s paw still smacks at golf, only in a different way. He started it but can’t finish it.

The game has moved away from straight, predictable stretch of road that was Tiger Woods (every so often Phil Mickelson rearranged the itinerary) and careened hither and yon, dogleg right and left. Nobody knows where it’s headed, but it strangely may be for the better — even if those once interested only because of Tiger aren’t as interested anymore.

In short, we now have no idea who’s going to be the best player from week to week. Just when we think we do, reality double-bogeys. It’s what Tiger’s rise (and his plummet) has wrought.

Brooks Koepka recently won the US Open. If you’ve never heard of him, you’re one of the Tiger-or-no-one-else fans. He’s a good player. He dominated ultra-long Erin Hills, which ridiculously played at par 72, and had the personality of a pitch and putt.

Brooks never may win another major. He may win five. This is golf now. One day, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson are the guys. Then maybe Rickie Fowler, who’s never won a major. A Sergio Garcia finally sneaks one at the Masters. Rory McIlroy was to be the new Tiger — he was a comet who briefly whipped magic — and on and on.

US golfer Tiger Woods swings from a bunker. AFP PHOTO

The telling stat is this: The champions of the last seven majors are golfers who never had won one.

This is what happens with no Tiger, who, face it, is done. Phil, who continues to play well enough to contend, turned 47, and while still capable of rising to the kill, can’t consistently be what he was. Father time is a rotten caddy.

So, what now? Where is golf going?

To help find the answer, I went to renowned golf/sports psychologist Dr. Michael Lardon, a former national table tennis champion, Rice/Stanford-educated, associate clinical professor of medicine at UC San Diego, and author of two books, including “Golf’s Mental Game,” forward by Mickelson.

“When Tiger dominated, we had the Tiger Effect,” Lardon said.

Woods made them all more money, but players genuflected in his presence.

“Others shot 1.6 shots worse than him,” Lardon added, “but the Tiger Effect has gone away. There has been a culture change. Even (tour) wives have stopped talking about him in a revered way.”

What’s happened here, be it Tiger’s regress or simply better players out on the courses, is the grading of a level playing field.

“I think there now is a collective psychological change among golfers, who now realize Tiger doesn’t walk on water,” he said. “There was Rory and then Jordan and then Jason, who I happen to love, although I worry about his game, and DJ (Johnson, the No. 1 player, missed cuts at the Memorial and Open), with so much talent.

“But the culture on Tour has changed. Tiger taught them fear. But the new kids didn’t grow up with Tiger. The fear went away. The new kids believe they can beat anybody, kind of like David Duval when he first came up.

“There is a much different mentality. It’s like Roger Bannister after he broke the 4-minute mile. Soon after 25 guys were doing it. The floodgates are open now. Young kids feed off each other, and I think it’s super exciting for golf.”

I love big-time golf. I enjoy the shotmaking, no matter who’s shooting. But we are a nation — a world — of star-worshippers. Phil is the unquestioned biggest name now, but he’s more “Seinfeld,” still entertaining, still loved, but in reruns. There’s no one out there to grab the public by the throat.

“We’re not going to have another Tiger guy — definitely not,” Lardon insisted. “But we are seeing a lot of kids who are fearless. We’ve had four 59s and a 58 shot in one year. Amazing. I’m working with a lot of guys in the next wave.”

I’m no more interested in watching a 350-yard drive than I am a 130-mph serve in tennis or knowing the exit velocity of a home run. Golf’s lawmakers have to do so something about the Tour equipment. Erin Hills was almost 8,000-plus yards long, ridiculous, and it still wasn’t long (or hard) enough.

“Golf courses keep getting longer; sooner or later there has to be a breaking point,” Lardon said. “They slowed down the table tennis ball. They can slow down a golf ball. The dollar drives things and golf companies just keep finding better technology.

“The new players pay attention. They work at eating right. They read. It’s a learning lab.”

For sure, it’s not the same, and I can’t help but wonder if it ever will be.

“Golf is much more healthy now than when I was around the tour a lot,” said Lardon, 57. “They all think they’re great. Incredible confidence.

“When Nicklaus played, there wasn’t the depth. There are so many amazing players now — at least 10 at every event, when there used to be maybe three. Somebody else would dominate for a time, but that was it.”

Is this good for golf? I want a deader ball. I want more shotmaking that requires brain and immense skill over brawn. Tiger had that. Phil has that.

Golf’s star system being dead is, at best, a birdie. It needs an eagle.

TNS

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