Tiger Woods doesn’t need the PGA Tour.

But he should respect the Tour. He should appreciate what the Tour has done for him. He should be willing to give back to the Tour. Because the Tour needs Tiger.

He should play in The Players if he’s physically able.

As I write this Tiger has not committed to play in next week’s Players. He has until 5 p.m. Friday to enter. He has posted on his website that he suffered a knee injury at the Masters. The injury, which he says happened during the third round, didn’t prevent him from having his best final round ever at Augusta National and putting himself in the thick of the chase for the green jacket.

Fair or not, Tiger’s uncertainty about The Players has raised eyebrows. Suspicious minds want to know: Is Tiger using the “injury” as an excuse not to play in the Tour’s premier event. He hasn’t hid the fact he’s not fond of the Pete Dye layout, a course that doesn’t treat wayward tee shots kindly. The TPC Stadium course is more about target golf than power. Many players only pull out their drivers on six or seven holes. It is a high risk-reward course. Birdies are plentiful. So are double bogeys.

Tiger has had success in The Players. He won in ’01 after finishing second the year before. Between 1999 and ’03 he never finished lower than tied for 11th. He was eighth in ’09. But that is his only top 15 finish in his last six appearances. He missed ’08 because of an injury and withdrew last year. He has un-Tiger-like finishes of T53 and T37 during that stretch.

Why is The Players so important? Because it is the Tour’s showcase tournament. It is the Tour’s major championship. It is an unmatched oddity in professional sports that professional golf’s biggest events –the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship — are run by other organizations. Imagine the NFL not being in charge of the Super Bowl or Major League Baseball not being in charge of the World Series.

Even though Tiger is mired in the biggest slump of his great career, he remains the face of professional golf. In the eyes of many, if Tiger’s not playing the tournament suffers. I’m not talking about hardcore golf fans. Many of them complain Tiger receives too much attention. But statistics don’t lie in this case. If Tiger doesn’t play the TV audience shrinks drastically. Ticket sales suffer. Corporate sponsors turn away. Media coverage is deceased. Prestige is lost.

Perhaps what’s most worrisome about Tiger is the perception he cares only about himself. Even at the height of his popularity and game he was considered aloof and a loner, even among his peers and the media. He was just so damn good – I think the greatest golfer ever – that people flocked to watch and the media groveled for ever interview they could get.

Not even when he turned out to be a one-eyed jack did his popularity suffer a great deal. Revealing the other side of his face – the side who wasn’t the great family man, husband and workaholic — simply made people more curious and hungrier than ever about his every move.

He remains the face of the Tour. It’s simply a dirtier face.

Still, I go back to my original point: Tiger doesn’t need the Tour. Financially he’s set for many lifetimes, having earned a record $100 million in prize money and $1 billion all together. Losing millions of dollars in endorsements and his ugly divorce have hardly put a dent in his wealth. Besides, not being a member of the PGA Tour would have little effect on his playing schedule. With the four major championships, the three World Golf Championships and five Tour sponsor exemptions available for him each year, his visibility around the world wouldn’t change. Did I mention all of the international tournaments that would beg (and pay) for him to play?

But without the PGA Tour none of this would have happened. The Tour gave him a venue for his greatness. It gave him a stage on which to perform. The greatest horse shoe pitcher of all time can only be envious.

Tour players love to tell the world they’re independent contractors. Indeed, there are no multi-year, guaranteed contracts in pro golf. Miss the 36-hole cut and you go home without a nickel. You make what you earn, not a nickel more. They set their own schedule.

I get it. I respect it.

But like in everything else about Tiger, he is one of the few exceptions to the rule. Only Arnold Palmer before him had such clout in golf. Palmer used his clout wisely. He made certain he hit all of the stops on the Tour at least every few years. His used his personality as well as his game to sell the sport. Palmer remains one of the most popular athletes in the world and he hasn’t won a major since 1964 or any Tour tournament since 1973.

Palmer, like so many of the game’s best, gave back to his sport.

The 2011 Players will go on without Tiger if he chooses to skip it for whatever reason. It will be successful. The Tour has many young and talented players. Perhaps more than ever before. But other than Tiger, it doesn’t have a face outside of the golf world.

Without Tiger it won’t be the same.

Hello, Tiger can you hear me?

  1. Wyman Stewart says:

    Not a golf fan, not a Tiger Woods fan, but it makes sense that at some point, however important Tiger Woods is to Golf, he must focus on his game. If focusing on his game means skipping golf tournaments, then he must do this. In the end, the real question will be is Tiger Woods a consistently competitive golfer. If not, the ratings and money will drop, with Tiger Woods ending up labeled a “has-been.”

    If golf is really important to Tiger Woods and he can come to grips with the fact he can’t control people’s perceptions of him, then I think he will relax in the ways he needs to relax, while excelling as a golfer, once more. He’s lived a fish-bowl life his entire life, but recent times have seen the fish bowl turned over and he must exchange gills for lungs, if he is to stand up and survive. I may not root for him in his sport or like the person I have seen over the years, but I can respect he has some major life challenges, while wishing him the best in overcoming those challenges. He’s human; he needs to join all of us in recognizing that. It’s not easy. He’s never done that before. Time will tell if he succeeds. In the meantime, part of the challenge, is taking the time to find his golf game again. In doing that, he may find and fix other things in his life.

    Let me close by saying, if Golf needs Tiger Woods that bad, then there must be something wrong with Golf. Therefore Golf needs to find out what that is and fix it. Remember, even Babe Ruth retired. Arnold Palmer is slowly fading away, as golfers do.

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