THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE
What’s good for the Goose (and the Big Easy and Lefty) isn’t good for the grander scheme of things at the Nissan Open.
Tiger Woods isn’t here, which means this weekend’s golf tournament is free of the grip he has held on the last seven PGA Tour events he has entered and it’s wide open for Retief Goosen, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and everyone else.
It also means they’re shedding tears in the CBS production truck. When Woods played on Sunday in 2006 the television ratings averaged 3.5, more than double the 1.6 for the non-major events in which he didn’t play.
The International had to fold this year, rendered obsolete like Tower Records, and tournament organizer Jack Vickers said the demise came because Woods hadn’t played there since 1999.
The Nissan Open will continue to attract strong fields (such as this year’s, with 14 of the top 18 players in the world) because players hold the classic Riviera Country Club course in high regard. Ironically, it’s the course that might keep Woods away. This is one course he has never managed to own, and some suspect that’s why he skipped this Nissan Open.
“He wants to keep his streak going -- he has never won here yet,” Goosen told reporters Tuesday. “So that’s clever thinking, actually.”
The transcript said there was laughter. That’s important to note, in case Woods is compiling a hit list.
I don’t think Woods is that worried about protecting the streak. Even he realizes it comes with qualifiers, because he has competed in non-PGA events and lost during it. He’s worried about Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors more than Byron Nelson’s 11 consecutive PGA Tour wins. He’s so single-minded that after he won at Torrey Pines last month, giving him five victories there and five at Firestone, Woods was asked which one he’d prefer to be at for a tournament-winning putt and he responded: “Augusta.”
On Wednesday, Kevin Na offered another excuse for Tiger’s absence: “I don’t know, maybe the traffic. I was in traffic all week. It’s brutal out here.”
Na added: “I’m sure he will come back next year and play. I’m sure he will win it.”
That’s the thing about Woods -- he’s so good people have confidence in him even at a course that has had his number.
When asked whether Woods’ absence changes his outlook for this tournament Els said: “Yes, absolutely. I mean, whenever Tiger plays he basically shows up with his game and he is effective.”
Els mentioned the deep field that includes Mickelson, Goosen and Adam Scott. Good players all. “But, yes, it makes it a little bit different with Tiger not being here,” Els said.
How’s that for honesty? And to think, I asked him about Woods only because I like the way Els says “Tiger” in his South African accent: “Tiii-ga.”
I’m hoping Els can use Tiger’s absence and his own past success here (he won the Nissan in 1999 and tied for third at the 1995 PGA Championship) to make himself a worthy Woods adversary again.
It was only a couple of years ago that Els was part of the “Big Four,” along with Woods, Mickelson and Vijay Singh. (For a while Goosen was added to the group with his two U.S. Open titles). Singh even surpassed Woods for the No. 1 spot in the world rankings for a while, although Els noted, “the one thing going for Vijay back then is that Tiger was changing his swing,” which is like leading a lap while the fastest car takes a pit stop.
Els, having won the U.S. Open twice and the British Open once, had a trophy collection that stood with any active player whenever Woods left the room.
Then Els tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in 2005, Mickelson melted down on the 18th hole of last year’s U.S. Open, Singh missed the cut at the British Open and the PGA, and Woods got his groove back.
“Now it’s become just a one-man show again,” Els said. “You know, Tiger just really set the bar again in the last year or so, winning those majors and on the streak now. He is just an unbelievable athlete.
“But hey, I’ve got my own little goals that I want to work at and see how far I can get there.”
At 37, Els should have one more run in him. Golf is the only sport where you can say that with confidence for a man his age; Singh hit his peak in his 40s.
I’m rooting for the Big Easy because in the past he has been on the other side of some of Woods’ best duels. Remember that showdown at Kapalua when they exchanged booming drives and long putts before Woods prevailed in a playoff at the 2000 Mercedes Championships?
I’m also hoping that if I’m exposed to more shots of Els’ smooth swing I’ll somehow adapt it by visual osmosis.
He said his knee injury kept him from putting weight on the leg, messed up his swing and put doubt in his head. But he felt good about the way he finished 2006 and likes where his game is.
This weekend he gets a chance to play in a Tiger-free zone. One fewer golf course hazard to worry about. For now.
“It’s not like Tiger is going to sit back and listen to all of this and not hit another golf ball,” Els said. “He also wants to become better and win more tournaments.
“It’s a huge mountain you’ve got to climb, but that’s what I want to try and do.”
J.A. Adande can be reached at email@example.com. To read more by Adande, go to latimes.com/adandeblog.