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This is not a "What's wrong with Tiger Woods?" column. I promise.
It seems like the entire golfing media has become consumed with watching Tiger Woods' continued struggles from a distance and furiously scribbling down their bon mots on a story that can honestly be explained in three words: HE'S GETTING DIVORCED (seriously, what other dominant athlete has gone through a similar experience while in his or her prime?).
The Jason Gays and Gene Wojciechowskis of the world can debate whether Tiger will ever return to form. I'll save my words—and concern—for what will happen to the golfing world if the sport's prime mover is really done. Because like any individual sport, golf needs an alpha dog.
Consider the history of each sport defined by "every man for himself." The boom periods of almost every individual sport have come when one athlete stood above the rest and came to transcend the game by dominating it. Boxing was never as popular as when Mohammed Ali floated like a butterfly, stung like a bee, and made the heavyweight division his own. Track and field had its most recent heyday when Carl Lewis and Florence Griffith Joyner were smashing records and racking up gold medals. And would extreme sports be where they are today without the breathtaking skateboarding performances of Tony Hawk in the late 1990s?
Those athletes and others like them galvanized their sports by appealing to mainstream fans. Because they were always in the winner's circle (Dale Earnhardt) or on the podium (Michael Phelps), they grew to define their sports and stepped into the homes of ordinary fans on a Wheaties box or in a McDonald's commercial. They were out there, and they took their sports with them.
They also possessed the intangible quality that so often rivets lovers of athletic competition: put simply, being the best. Watching someone perform their vocation better than anyone else in the world is a remarkable phenomenon, akin to seeing a Yo Yo Ma concert or Barysknikov at the ballet. And while we take unparalleled greatness in sports figures more for granted, we experience the same sense of wonder.
If you're not convinced, watch this video of Shaun White, snowboarder and two-time Olympic gold medalist:
Without an undisputed top dog in a sport, fans don't see transcendence. Instead, they witness an oligarchy of almost-great players trade the title of "best player in the world" back and forth. Think men's tennis in the early 2000s or heavyweight boxing right now. Golf had a similar period in the mid-1990s, when a handful of second-tier legends ground out a couple major championships each. People didn't watch, and history wasn't made. Then Tiger came along and transfixed a nation, and golf purses rose exponentially in 10 years.
Which brings us back to now. If Tiger has really lost that intangible ability to be the best, golf's Q rating (not to mention its television ratings) is in serious trouble. The only player who could remotely seize the alpha dog mantle is Phil Mickelson, who's won four majors and is poised to become No. 1 in the world. But last weekend, Mickelson shot an abysmal 78 when a 66 would've given him the top rankings spot.
Mickelson has another chance to get to No. 1 this week at the PGA Championship, the year's final major. Maybe he will seize the moment and become the undisputed best golfer in the world. But if he doesn't, golf may suddenly find itself without an alpha dog—and we all may stop watching.