It was Thursday morning, and Tiger Woods had begun plummeting down the PGA Championship leaderboard, past the names of some club pros who at one time would have given their right arm and a child-to-be-conceived-later to stand on the same course with him, much less post a lower score in a major.
Woods at this point was 5 over par, eight strokes back.
He also was the lead story on ESPN.com and other national sports-related websites. The lead photograph. The lead everything.
It was the same Friday afternoon, hours after Woods had departed Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga., after finishing two rounds at 10 over and missing the cut in a third major. Lead story. Lead photo. Lead everything.
He will matter until this isn’t the case, until a time comes in the world of professional golf when his presence even trumps another dreadful performance. When missing the cut is treated as such.
Corporate sponsors are running from Woods like one would a burning home, and fellow pros are as intimidated by the thought of a red shirt on Sunday as they would be pristine conditions on a local par-3 track. Endorsements are dwindling, and players once awed by Woods’ play now offer what could be construed as pity quotes.
But fans lined the gallery five rows deep whenever Woods hit a shot this weekend, never mind they had to duck much of the time once he did. Woods found more water than a houseboat on Lake Mead. He was all over the place, discovering 22 bunkers over 36 holes.
It didn’t matter to those watching live or on television. His name still dictates ratings. His story still dominates headlines. He could never again win a major — and his play of late suggests that’s a possibility — and yet Woods for years could remain the preeminent face of a game he ruled for years until a Thanksgiving drive turned nightmare.
And I believe most want it that way.
We want the robot to win again. Some want to cheer him. Some want to boo. More than anything, we want to think that given Woods has 45 more chances at a major until he turns 46 (the age Jack Nicklaus won the last of his record 18), his once-dominating game has to have one comeback left.
Remember: Woods once went 10 straight majors without a win. Then he won four in the next two years. He has been through slumps before, albeit none that included a Perkins waitress and porn stars.
Even those who continue to delight in Woods’ downfall, professionally and personally, likely would enjoy nothing more than him falling one major short of tying Nicklaus.
That’s drama. That’s compelling. That’s far better than this new and diminished version of Woods.
He’s so bad now, so messed up with a new swing coach and caddie, disliking the guy is almost impossible. Almost.
“Now,” Woods said following a 73 on Friday, four strokes better than the awful 77 he posted in the first round, “I’ll have nothing to do but work on my game.”
Woods needs practice. Hours and days and weeks of it. He needs to play round after round with just his coach watching and tweaking and encouraging. He has to approach golf as most mortals do, with the acceptance that flaws exist in his game. Given his recent scores, that shouldn’t be an issue.
He never will be the same but once again can be the best because he finally is healthy, and perhaps no athlete in history this side of Michael Jordan has owned such a competitive fire to destroy the competition.
“It’s a step back in the sense that I didn’t make the cut and I’m not contending in the tournament, but it’s a giant leap forward in the fact that I played two straight weeks, healthy,” Woods said. “So just need to go out and do my work.”
Do not bury him yet. No one should want last rites administered.
He still matters. He is still the lead story, the lead photo, the lead everything. It will stay that way for some time.
Might as well have the guy playing well, also.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 3 to 5 p.m. Monday and Thursday on “Monsters of the Midday,” Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.