OPINION: A US Open without Tiger Woods has been compared to all sorts of things in the previous few days. No-one has yet said it is like an All Blacks jersey without the silver fern. Although I guess I sort of just did. To really push the silver fern analogy, something close to the heart is missing at Pinehurst this week.
Whether you are a fan or a hater, it is hard not to get tangled up in all manner of Tiger metaphors and similes. He gives everyone else context. If Phil Mickelson wins this week and completes the career Grand Slam, will there be an asterisk beside his name?
Mickelson's career has been defined in so many ways by Woods. When Mickelson should have been at his peak Tiger constantly belittled him. Jonny Miller said in preview for this week, "A lot of the players think Phil's a little Hollywood."
It wasn't meant as a compliment - although a professional sportsman, paid entertainer that he is, should be praised for bringing a bit of Hollywood to the fans - but even when he is not around, Tiger informs the commentary. Tiger labelled Phil 'Hollywood'. Those of us who were there, will never forget the look of contempt that Tiger gave Mickelson when he sprayed his drive on the final hole of the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills.
Woods created a rivalry and then made it clear you couldn't have a rivalry when one of the rivals was constantly getting his brains beaten out. Woods was a genius at the sort of thing. He always had something stirring in the pot.
At the 2013 US Open a lot of the preview was taken up by Sergio Garcia attempting to apologise to Woods about a fried chicken comment he had made. Woods has never played the race card, but he's played every other card in the deck and a few that weren't. He didn't make it easy for Sergio. Woods made sorry seem like the hardest word.
But Woods is not in North Carolina this week. Tiger is still only on chipping and putting after his back surgery. We can't help missing him. I am not saying that I won't be wired to the television for much of the weekend. The All Blacks versus England, a soccer World Cup and a US Open golf. How lucky we sports nuts are sometimes. Too much of a good thing? I don't think so.
But golf has always been described by the super heroes. After World War I the incomparable Walter Hagen, in the company of Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones, brought a bit of Gatsby to the old British game of stymies and mashies.
Following World War II, Ben Hogan dug golf out of the dirt, while Sam Snead tipped his hat. And then in the 60s and 70s came the great Jack Nicklaus, swarmed by Arnie's Army in the early days, but slowly turning golden in the company of Palmer, Player, Trevino, Miller, Watson and Floyd.
In some ways Woods has done a Nicklaus in reverse. Jack started as the villain and turned into the golden bear. Woods started as the chosen one and turned into a tarnished Tiger.
But even now we would have him back in a heartbeat. Tiger can still sparkle like no other. Hunter Mahan said the other day, "You feel it when you're out there. He's a force. At Augusta it looked different, felt different from when he is there."
At the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach I asked Woods if he had any resolution with Elin, given that every man's professional life was affected by his home life. Misery and uncertainty are killers.
"None of your goddam business," said Tiger.
The press conference was televised and the next day on the golf course a fan heckled, "Hey Tiger, it is our business. You made it our business."
Whether you are a heckler or a fan, Tiger has always been our business. Miller calls him "the greatest performer in the history of golf."
It is the perfect choice of word. Tiger performs. He cannot claim to be the greatest player until he passes Nicklaus's record, a feat that is becoming more unlikely. But Woods owns two of the greatest - if not the greatest, full stop, period - performances in US Open history.
The 15-stroke victory at the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach must be the supreme all-time performance by a golfer. It ranks up there across all sports. The play-off victory at the 2008 US Open on a busted leg is still almost incomprehensible, an act of will so great that it seemed almost to finish even Tiger.
It was in that frame that Michael Campbell won his US Open here at Pinehurst. Retief Goosen led going into that final day, pursued off stage by Olin Browne and Jason Gore. But Tiger made Campbell's day. Would the victory have been quite so momentous if Campbell hadn't seen the dust of Woods swirling down the road towards him.
Campbell says now, "It's been traumatic. My wife and family went through a lot of emotional turmoil, from wonderful highs to awful lows. And it was difficult seeing my family see me like that."
In another era Campbell's victory, like Bob Charles's, would have made a nation proud. And then we would have moved on. But Tiger changes the scale. Ticket prices have halved this week and TV figures for the final round at Augusta were awful. Would Campbell's trauma have occurred without so huge a global audience?
Whoever you are rooting for this week, it's not the same if you can't root against Tiger. And if you are a Tiger fan, then Pinehurst is a barren landscape. The world of golf is a good deal safer but, love him or hate him, you can't help admitting that some of the thrill has gone.
- Sunday Star Times
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