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Best: Tiger's troubles will be tough on his sport

Tiger Woods helps launch the Gillette Fusion Power

Tiger Woods helps launch the Gillette Fusion Power Gamer razor during the Gillette-EA SPORTS Champions of Gaming Finals in Orlando, Fla. Credit: AP

You'd think a sport populated more than any other by people who understand money and business would have avoided this. But no.

The PGA Tour failed to diversify its portfolio, like a sucker who invested it all with GM or Citigroup or Bernie Madoff.

It put all its corporate eggs into one range ball basket, and now Tiger Woods has taken his putter and gone home, leaving . . . well, much less than was there before.

Contrast the crisis in golf to what the NFL experienced when Tom Brady, arguably its marquee player, went down last season in the first quarter of the first game:

Nothing, really. The league went forward with barely a blip in its extraordinary popularity.

Sure, it's not fair to compare an absence in a team sport to one in an individual game, but no one person in tennis, boxing, MMA or assorted Olympic sports could do this much damage by going on an "indefinite'' break. (OK, maybe Michael Phelps in swimming.)

This is the bargain that golf struck during its decade-and-a-half of Tigermania, and its tenability relied on Woods being both brilliant on the course and stable (and saleable) off it.

That model has been shattered for now, and until he repents and returns, the sport will be more or less where it was before Woods arrived (and where it was during his absence for much of 2008): Just another specialized attraction competing for America's team sports scraps.

Golf didn't get itself into this predicament intentionally, of course.

The idea back in the mid-1990s was that Woods would change the sport - if not the world, as his father suggested - and make it more popular and inclusive.

He certainly has made it more popular, fostering more diversity in the fan base here and overseas. But his greatness has kept reliable rivals from emerging to complement him, and his ability to usher more people of color into the sport's top ranks as players has not been as powerful as some had hoped.

Turns out there is only so much even Woods can do for a game that still requires more money and/or time than many people can spend.

Woods' leave of absence in the wake of his ongoing floozypalooza - Saturday was his 14th day in a row on the front page of the New York Post! - will hurt golf's TV partners most.

The so-called "Tiger Effect'' on ratings has been sliced and diced for years, and depending on how you calculate it can alter the numbers by 25 to 50 percent, if not more.

Sponsors? They, too, are in a muddle. They are pestered by journalists for updated statements with each turn in the saga and have been mostly supportive, but not so tone-deaf as to run an ad anytime soon featuring Woods' confident scowl.

What's next? Eventually Woods will have to face our famously forgiving nation in the form of a blunt, extensive interview.

It can happen on Oprah. It can happen the Sunday before the Masters on "60 Minutes.''

Or I can meet Woods in the locker room at Bethpage if he prefers an old-fashioned print interview. (Afterward, I could give him tips about how to play No. 15 on the Black.)

Woods and his people will figure it out. But their media strategy still is evolving.

The fact that he revealed his break and "infidelity'' late Friday - traditional timing for announcing news when you want to lessen the media impact - shows he still is calculating his moves carefully.

When Woods does return, he will generate more interest than ever, and if he continues to deliver on the course, golf quickly will return to its pre-Thanksgiving 2009 popularity.

But after experiencing life without Tiger in 2008 and now for a chunk of 2010, the sport should take the opportunity to examine the fragile foundation of its early 21st-century success and figure out how to fortify it.

New York Sports