Tiger Woods' golf, our golf are different things

Tiger Woods lets go of his club after

Tiger Woods lets go of his club after hitting a shot on the 14th hole during the third round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament. (June 16, 2012) (Credit: AP)

SAN FRANCISCO

The idea has been getting louder all week and becoming closer to unanimous by the day. With every step that Tiger Woods takes closer toward winning his first major title in four years, the feeling is that a return of Woods to the top will be "great for golf."

That concept is true, and not so true. It all depends on what you mean by "golf."

If the word refers to the PGA Tour, male professional golfers (especially them), television networks (record ratings Friday for ESPN!), major championship committees or a leading video game company, the feeling is absolutely right. A win for Woods at the U.S. Open would put business on a trajectory toward the moon.

If, on the other hand, you take "golf" to represent the idea of going to the sporting goods store to buy a set of clubs, taking a lesson from the pro or calling to make a tee time, it probably doesn't matter who wins the U.S. Open. Even before Woods fell from the highest of his heights, the grass roots never experienced the groundswell that was expected.

What the Woods era produced was not one sweeping effect in the golf world. It basically created two distinct golf worlds.

As a professional sport and a spectator attraction, golf never had it so good as when Woods was great. His college buddy Casey Martin, who has watched the phenomenon mostly because he has not been on tour, said after playing his two rounds here, "I love it. Golf is not the same without Tiger at the top."

Tour players have made more money than they could have imagined. Interest in pro events has exploded because of Woods, sponsorships went way up and so did purses. The economic downturn did not take a huge hunk out of those. So it was no surprise on Friday that David Toms, one of the two players tied for first with the 14-time major winner, was more gratified than terrified over seeing "Woods" on the leader board.

"I like seeing it because more people cover our sport, more people are out at the tournaments when he's playing well," Toms said. "I'm sure they will be going crazy for Tiger out there this weekend and rightfully so. He brings a lot to our game."

But the boom in everyday American golf that was expected after Woods grew popular in 1997 never did materialize. Many courses that opened back then are struggling to stay afloat now, if in fact they have stayed afloat. A survey by the National Golf Foundation indicated that more American courses are shuttering than opening, and it's not even close. There were 19 startup courses last year as opposed to 157 that went out of business.

At the U.S. Golf Association's annual news conference here on the eve of the tournament -- basically a state-of-the-sport message -- president Glen Nager spent a good deal of time talking about "a comprehensive strategic plan" to stop the decline in the number of rounds played.

"Particularly for the recreational golfer, there needs to be more emphasis on enjoyment of the game, more emphasis on affordability of the game and more emphasis on welcome-ness in the game," he said.

On the latter score, the doors that were expected to swing open haven't opened. There are fewer black golfers on the PGA Tour now than there were in the 1970s.

A positive outlook would say that maybe the boom is still coming, or is coming from a whole new world. Andy Zhang, the 14-year-old who grew up in China and qualified for this Open, called himself a huge Tiger fan. Perhaps the Woods generation is just starting.

One thing does appear likely. On the question of what a Woods revival would do "for golf," we are probably going to find out pretty soon.