— SHEBOYGAN, Wis. - The NFL is a better place when its historically-significant teams are significant, i.e when the Cowboys are the Cowboys, when the Packers are the Packers. Major League Baseball is more symmetrical when its historically-prominent franchises are prominent, i.e. when the Yankees are the Yankees, when the Dodgers are the Dodgers. The NBA, likewise, is a better brand when the Celtics and Lakers are headliners.
That's how it works in the sports and entertainment biz. Identity is an important piece of a successful formula. Perception is most effective when it matches reality. It's what draws in the casual observer, catches the wondering eye, intrigues the otherwise disinterested, spikes the ratings.
This essential element might be even more important in golf, where there are no home teams, no built-in emotional attachments. As we close shop on another season of major championship, this essential element is missing.
Golf is in a purgatorial place right now. It's best player, Tiger Woods, is not it's best player, and no one is consistently standing in.
This was to be a special year for Woods and for the majors, with stops at Pebble Beach and St. Andrews, in addition to Augusta. History suggested, when things were said and done, Woods might have 16 or more major championships to his name, and be hard on the Jack Nicklaus Trail.
Perception and reality figured to engage and send anticipation skyrocketing as 2011 approached. Something else has happened, something no one could have anticipated.
Woods went all Humpty Dumpty, starting with his driveway disaster last November. He fell from grace publicly and has fallen from his perch professionally. His final round 73 (tied for 28th) at the PGA Championship on Sunday was neither here nor there.
Golf has conducted 10 majors since Woods' dramatic win in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines — Woods has not won any of them. Seven of the 10 have been won by players who had never won majors before, anonymous names to the casual and disinterested.
To wit: Graeme McDowell and Lucas Glover have won the last two U.S. Opens. Martin Kaymer and Y.E. Yang have won the last two PGAs. Louis Oosterhuizen and Stewart Cink have won the last two British Opens. Rosencrantz and Gildenstern have won the last two Masters. OK, the Masters reference is bogus. But unless you're not an avid golf fan, you probably didn't flinch.
Just look around. One of the challenges facing the LPGA these days is a lack of star identity. Without Annika Sorenstam, without Lorena Ochoa, who is the face of the women's tour? Maybe it will be Paula Creamer, but the Pink Panther will have to follow her first major championship with more of the same if she is to dig a foundation deep enough. Continuity is crucial in establishing identity.
The PGA was Woods' eighth consecutive major start without a win. Along with a T23 at the British Open, it was the second major in succession with an also-ran finish. Results-wise, it is his worst back-to-back majors since 2001, when he finished T25 and T29 at the British Open and PGA respectively. Woods is working on a four-tournament stretch in which his best finish is the T23 at the British, the worst stretch of results in his professional career.
Woods accomplished one thing at Whistling Straits. He put to rest the “sky is falling” aspect of his T78 performance at Firestone. He made 15 birdies this week, had two rounds under par. He showed flashes, teased the crowds with some Tiger moments. Your ordinary professional player would not be discouraged.
But this player goes by “Tiger,” not Eldrick. He's not supposed to be ordinary; that train left the station at Augusta National in 1997. He's not supposed to make 11 bogeys over four rounds. He's supposed to do much better than shoot par-80 on 16 par-5s. He's supposed to be a fixture in the Ryder Cup not a controversial figure.
“I've just got to put it together for four days and I never did that,” Woods said.
He's Tiger Woods, for cripes sake. He's all about contention, not conciliation. But Woods' slump has put U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin in damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't territory. It seems likely Pavin will offer Woods an at-large berth, which probably represents the lesser of two evils — not counting any “told you so” smirks from Jim Gray.
Woods is getting there. “I feel good about the way I was hitting my irons this week, the way I was able to drive my irons through the wind,” Woods said. “It felt good again to do that.” Maybe he will be on his game by the time the U.S. contingent arrives in Wales. Then again, maybe he will be on his couch. “I don't even know if I'm in the next tournament or not,” Woods cracked.
As the crazy, calamitous events at artificially-ambiguous Whistling Straits came to an end, Woods was unsure where he stood in the FedEx Cup standings. But he is guaranteed of playing in The Barclays, the first of the four playoff events.
“I feel like my game is a lot better than it was obviously last week, and given a little bit more time, it's starting to head in the right direction,” Woods said. “I'm looking forward to it. Hopefully, Corey will pick me on the team.”
Pavin and the gods of golf must be holding their breath. The game is better off if Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods. Brief moments notwithstanding, he clearly is not. He clearly is still searching, still putting pieces back together, on the golf course and off.
In the meantime, the professional game is listing in a faceless ocean of nondescription. The conclusion of the PGA was another example, not unlike the finale of the U.S. Open or the wrap of the British Open. Balls flew into hazards, scores backed up, players grappled for poise, the scene begged for clarity.
Phil Mickelson won the Masters back in April, a touching story and promising development. But Mick the Stick was seriously imbedded in the last two majors of the season. Although he has had Woods in his Official World Golf Rankings sights for weeks, he has been unable to finish him off.
No one know what lies ahead for Mickelson, how the future might be impacted by his arthritic condition. To say nothing of fairness, it would be unrealistic to suggest Mickelson can fill the void.
But who will? As we close the books on golf's major championship season, the absence of order is obvious. As Tiger Woods strains to re-establish himself, the PGA Tour is like the backup band without its lead singer. Professional golf needs Woods to carry the tune again.
Or it needs one of these new major champions to be more frequent major champions, to make perception match realty.