Crouching Tiger, hidden Tour

Dan Wetzel

Five of the world's top 10 golfers teed it up Thursday at the Northern Trust Open at Los Angeles' Riviera Country Club. Phil Mickelson finished atop the first-round leader board.

That's a strong field and a famous leader on a historic course in the nation's second biggest media market, yet there's a pretty good chance no one outside of the die-hard golf fans even noticed.

Tiger Woods has always cast a huge presence over the game, generally in the form of intimidating opponents on Sunday's back nine. The last eight months he's exceeded even that without swinging a club in earnest. The entire tour has stalled in his shadow.

Woods will return from a knee injury next week in Arizona at the Accenture Match Play Championship. The PGA Tour, at last, returns to relevance.

"I'm now ready to play again," Woods wrote on his website.

The PGA Tour saw its future in the days since Tiger hobbled off the 91st hole of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines last June.

That was arguably his most dramatic victory, his 14th major championship and 65th tour title. The Monday gallery and television audience were both massive, watching his every limp as he held off Rocco Mediate in a forever finale.

It was the game's greatest delivering the game at its greatest.

And then he, and it, was gone.

In the Tiger vacuum, Padraig Harrington won a couple of majors, the U.S. won the Ryder Cup and comparatively few people were interested in any of it.

Television ratings plummeted. Attendance tumbled. A sport reliant on corporate sponsorship suffered from the double trouble of a recession and no Tiger.

It's more obvious than ever that Woods is what drives the train, what makes golf go from niche to national. He's been a boon to the sport and the tour has smartly ridden him for all he's worth.

It now desperately needs to transition away from all Tiger all the time, while there's still time. It needs to sell future stars and story lines while Tiger-sized audiences are watching.

Woods' return is a shot in the arm for the sport. Team Tiger has claimed he's hitting it better than ever and just this week his caddie, Steve Williams, declared him ready in a "few weeks."

That became next week, perhaps spurred by the Feb. 8 birth of his son, Charlie. That's enough time with a howling newborn to send even the most dedicated parent back to work.

Whether his rusty game lasts past even one match in Arizona isn't what's important to the tour. Tiger will be back to being the best soon enough. He's expected to play at the World Golf Classic event at Doral near his South Florida home in mid-March, and perhaps the Arnold Palmer Invitation in Orlando two weeks later.

Then he'll descend on Augusta National in April ready to get serious.

The question for golf is for how long?

We know Woods had the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee reconstructed last June. He may or may not have had other procedures. There's no way of knowing for sure. Team Tiger wasn't disclosing medical info prior to Torrey Pines either and for good reason. At least part of Woods dominance comes from his ability to intimidate.

At age 33, though, this injury could give Tiger another 15 years at the top of his game or it could be a Band-Aid for a problem that might slow his career to a crawl. Did this procedure fix everything or just buy time? Can his body withstand the immense torque he puts it through with each swing? Is he going to naturally lose something to his game as he approaches 40?

The PGA Tour can only hope like everyone else that Tiger is back and better than ever. Just in case he isn't, they need to seize the opportunity to build for a post-Tiger world.

There was little sense of urgency as Tiger marched toward history of eclipsing Jack Nicklaus' 18 majors. That still promised monster television ratings and overflow galleries every time he plays.

Lately he's been his best on the biggest stages, rising golf's majors to the stratosphere. He won five of the last 14 majors he played in and finished in the top four on seven other occasions. Torrey Pines capped an eight major streak of four victories and three runner ups.

There's no way golf can count on that kind of sustained dominance. As much as you anticipate Tiger will win every event he's in, at some point that has to stop.

The problem is no real rival has emerged to take Tiger on. Mickelson looked the part for awhile but since melting down at the 2006 U.S. Open he's been a non-factor in the majors. He's missed as many cuts (two) as he's had top-10 finishes.

Then there's a lack of bankable non-Tiger stars. The week in, week out field is painfully dull, an almost robotic collection of good but not great golfers. For too long they've lived off the big purses Tiger generated, coming of age in an era where you can get outrageously rich without winning, or even trying to win, anything.

The arrival of Japanese teen Ryo Ishikawa may help fill that void but the Tour must find a way to develop and market some personalities, make the game more cutthroat and encourage risk taking.

Tiger returns next week and it's a reason for everyone interested in the game to rejoice and cherish the sight of him striding around the course.

We've seen the future of golf and it isn't very exciting.