News & Opinion

Woods: Out of sight, out of mind … out of time?

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – A straw cowboy hat adorning his head, Mike Spencer leaned on the metal railing situated along the driving range at TPC Sawgrass with a cup of cold beer in hand, watching attentively as players warmed up during one of the biggest weeks in golf. Hundreds of fans milled about at The Players Championship, animatedly and excitedly, because their heroes were nearly within arm’s reach.

Spencer, a self-described avid golfer, watched as Aussie star Jason Day, the 2016 Players champion, spanked drivers into the horizon, representing a key part of one of the deepest tournament fields in golf. Only one marquee name was missing, really, another former world No. 1 who had won the event four years earlier.

Where Tiger Woods once drew the biggest galleries in golf, the mention of his name in the gallery here mostly drew shrugs and rolled eyes. Not that there aren’t other indicators that his relevance rating has reached a historic low, mind you.

Drop the name of Woods these days and gallery reaction skews hard toward outright apathy, which might be the kindest term possible for those experiencing an acute case of Tiger fatigue. Next month will mark the nine-year anniversary of his last major-championship victory, at the 2008 U.S. Open, although the major drought seems even longer to many, magnified by his missteps, recent medical woes and plunge in the world ranking, to No. 860.

If you reached the saturation point long ago, you’re not alone. Between sips, Spencer was asked, “Whither Woods?”

“Tiger? What about him?” Spencer said. “Did he finally decide to retire or something?”

Sarcasm aside, the sport might be nearing his final act. Woods, of course, announced a few weeks ago that he was recovering from his fourth career back surgery and would miss the rest of the season. His absence has been palpable, in oddly inverse fashion.

Not long ago, including during a five-win 2013 season that featured a victory at Sawgrass, his every utterance was dissected by fans, broadcasters and social media. Yet after three-plus seasons of false starts, setbacks and sutures for Woods, his name mostly generates yawns and indifference. Since the sex scandal broke in late 2009, it hasn’t been hard to find Woods critics, but never before have there been so many who are plain tired of the soap opera.

“Call me when he can break 80 and play four days in a row,” said Curt Williams, 40, during weekend play at Sawgrass. “Until then, don’t call me at all.”

That’s not feedback; it’s blowback.

Measuring fan approbation via casual polling and trolling means the results are purely anecdotal and non-analytical. But there are signs that Woods’ relevance has dimmed to the point that he has become close to inconsequential, for the time being if not longer. Jacksonville resident Bob Morris said he watched from along the ropes as Woods won at Bay Hill and Sawgrass in years past, and said he misses watching him play, but only to a point.

“He could do things that no other player could do,” Morris said as he stood under a shade tree at Sawgrass. “Now, basically, he can’t do the things that every player can do.”

Woods has played three official rounds worldwide this season, missing the cut in January at Torrey Pines and pulling out of the European Tour’s Dubai event after opening with a 77. Two months earlier, he played decently at the Hero World Challenge, an unofficial event in the Bahamas that benefits his foundation. His appearance generated solid TV ratings, a sign that public curiosity hadn’t disappeared.

Yet the news has been nothing but negative, and all too familiar, since. Another surgery, preceded by a string of worldwide withdrawals, left his diehard fans pining for any news not involving a doctor. Casual fans mostly just yawn. Scandal plus scalpel equals more indifference.

Not long ago, any newsy missive posted on his website resulted in a virtual stampede up Twitter’s trending top 10 in the U.S., but not anymore. The siege of bad news has generated little discussion. After the sameness of so many surgeries, filling 140 characters with pithy commentary has become a difficult task. There’s truly nothing left to say.

Other signs of Tiger burnout are there, for those paying attention. Off the course, while Woods has been linked to a handful of new-course designs as the economy turned around, others remain mothballed or worse. The trumpeted Cliffs at High Carolina development is destined for the auction block, according to reports. The partially completed site has been listed for sale for years.

Few dispute the notion that a return to anything close to former glory would help the game, but Woods’ past heroics haven’t mustered much interest, either, it seems. Last month, Woods released his first book, entitled “The 1997 Masters: My Story,” which debuted at No. 15 on The New York Timeshardcover nonfiction bestseller list on April 9. Seven days later, despite decent reviews, it disappeared from the newspaper’s top 15 and now ranks outside the top 25,000 among all books sold on Amazon.

The majority of fans queried at Sawgrass were illustrative of the notion that Woods weariness is becoming endemic. Whether the 79-time PGA Tour winner’s star can ever recover any semblance of its former sparkle has never been more open to question, and few in the gallery at Sawgrass were making bold predictions.

“No disrespect, but I’m here because of the guys who are actually playing,” said J.C. Williams, who said he had attended the Sawgrass event several times, often pulling for Woods. “If he makes a comeback – a legitimate comeback – great. Until then….”

It’s safe to claim that Woods has more detractors than any other player. That said, the Woods camp’s projections about his health status have been as hollow as they’ve been optimistic. After three years of withdrawals and forgettable play, the level of dismay has spiked even among the faithful.

So, while the temperature during the U.S. Open surely will climb into the steamy 90s, the thermometer reading relating to Woods might represent a quarter-century low. After all, can there be a more innocuous question to pose to a golf fan than: What do you think about Tiger Woods?

“I don’t,” said Williams, 35, as he adjusted his cap at Sawgrass. “Right now, I don’t think about him at all.”

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling