AUBURN, Ala. — Sometime late Sunday evening, a man will slip a green jacket around his shoulders in the Butler Cabin.
At that point, tears may or may not flow. Each man handles these things a bit differently. Regardless of how many (or few) shots he wins by, however, the player should rightfully be considered a worthwhile champion. Yet for some, that won’t be good enough.
Yes, this small, vocal minority will affix an imaginary asterisk beside the winner’s name.
What legitimate excuse could possibly cause them to feel this way? Why, it’s due to the absence of the world’s top-ranked player, Tiger Woods. Any sane person would laugh at such a suggestion.
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Bear in mind that this isn’t the first time such an opinion has surfaced. When Padraig Harrington won the final two majors of 2008 — at the British Open nd PGA Championship, respectively — Woods was nowhere to be found. As those with good memories recall, he was forced to sit at home, recovering from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Even so, he made his last tournament that season count. In one of the most memorable performances of his legendary career, Woods captured the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, dispatching Rocco Mediate in a playoff that went to 19 holes.
Coincidentally, that happens to be Woods’ last victory in a major championship. He once won them in bunches. Now, he’s been stuck on 14 for six years. With each passing major, the prospect of him getting to 19 — the number he needs to pass Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record — seems more and more unlikely.
After having surgery on his back last week, there’s no telling exactly how long Woods will be out. A tentative target date seems to be the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, which is set to begin June 12. A more realistic goal would probably be a bit later, however, giving him time to prepare for this year’s British Open at Hoylake.
But in the time until he returns, one needs to ask why people should feel a major victory shouldn’t “count” if he’s not in the field. In what other sport would this hold any merit? Much like Tiger, Rafael Nadal has had to miss his share of Grand Slams due to injury. Even though he’s the No. 1 player on the ATP Tour, there weren’t people coming out in droves to protest that winners of these tournaments should feel unworthy merely due to Nadal's non-participation.
Or how about the case of Kobe Bryant? He might have lost a step — maybe two — but no one is saying the NBA season is a fraud because one of its best players only took the floor in six games before a fractured left knee cut his 2013-14 campaign short.
So it’s simple: Those who have that line of thinking that there should be two different “types” of major victories — one with Woods, one without them — need to get over themselves.
Major championships were played well before Woods came on the PGA Tour. That won't change once he’s finally decided to hang up his spikes for good. There is life after Tiger for the world of golf. But there's no doubt the game is better with Woods in it due to his polarizing nature. You might love him or hate him, but you likely have a strong opinion one way or the other.
Much the same, Sunday's winner will likely wish him a speedy recovery, as every athlete wants to compete against (and beat) the best.
Just know that any thoughts about Woods' health will disappear the minute the champion dons his green jacket.