It should come as a surprise that this week’s prediction for the upcoming U.S. Open starts off with one player who isn’t here as opposed to the 156 who are only if you haven’t been paying attention for the last 17 years – or the last three months.
Tiger Woods isn’t competing because of an injury to his back or shoulder or knee – hell, who can keep track anymore? – which will leave the rest of us shaking our heads in unison until the first tee ball is in the air, muttering over and over again, “There’s just no BUZZ this week.” Hey, I’ll be the first guy to puff out my chest and stick up my nose and proclaim that the game is bigger than Woods, that they’ve been playing since Scottish shepherds first started swinging sticks around empty fields and they’ll keep playing long after he’s gone. But I count myself among the masses jumping on the No Buzz Bandwagon barreling straight for Pinehurst No. 2.
Nothing new to see here. There was admittedly no buzz before this year’s Masters Tournament and Players Championship, so there’s no reason to believe the latest in this succession of big-time events should be any different. Oh, sure, there’s the major storyline of Phil Mickelson trying to avenge those six runner-up finishes and those zero top-10s this year and those irritating FBI investigators. That’s buzzworthy, I’ll give you that. Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott and their secret-but-not-too-secret love lives? Sorry, unless Caroline Wozniacki shows up to the first tee in that witch’s costume, it’s not enough to get me too worked up.
All of which brings us back to Tiger.
Even though he rarely allows himself to say anything of substance, he’s still a major story at every major. He’s the straw that stirs the drink; he doesn’t move the needle, he is the needle – all of those cutesy phrases we’ve heard for years that simply confirm what we already knew: The dude gets us excited. When Tiger is prepping to play a big-time event, there’s more of a crackle in the air. More sizzle. More tension. More expectations of greatness. This isn’t some flimsy personal opinion. It’s the damn truth. Ask anyone who’s seen the before and after pictures.
As we prepare to contest a sixth major in the last 24 without him, a singular moment sticks out in my mind. This was from almost exactly six months ago, one of those rare moments where Tiger actually did allow himself to say something of substance. It was at his own World Challenge event back in December and he was asked about the impending four majors for the 2014 season.
“Well,” he said, “I've won at every one except for Pinehurst, and I'm trending in the right way. I've finished third, second. You get the picture, right?”
In case you don’t, let me paint by numbers for you: Woods finished behind only Payne Stewart and Mickelson back in 1999; he was bested by just Michael Campbell in 2005. You didn’t even need to hear those words, though. His confident smile told everything. Even six months ago, he was licking his chops at the possibility of adding another major title to his long stalled odometer this week.
And now? There won’t be an asterisk affixed to the guy who wins a Woods-less tournament. There won’t be more talk on Sunday evening about the guy who isn’t here than the guy who won. But it will still feel a little … empty. Like a Fourth of July without the fireworks. It’s still nice, you wouldn’t trade it for another day in the office, but it’s missing the one thing you waited for the entire day.
That’s Tiger. He’s the fireworks.
Which I suppose makes all of the other guys hot dogs and sparklers.
Well, one of them is going to win this tournament in a few days. Let’s rank ‘em – and as always, I’ll be happy to take the full blame if you lose your office pool and none of the credit if you win.