ST. LOUIS -- The PGA Tour officially began anew on Thursday with the SBS Championship in Hawaii. In some ways, this season begins just like many others.
Most notable is that Tiger Woods will not be in this first, limited field. He probably won't be in the next field either, or a few fields to come. Woods, whose personal life has been totaled since his Nov. 27 driveway accident, is on a self-imposed leave of absence to put the pieces back together.
Historically, golf without Woods is a lonesome, desolate place, where TV ratings tumble, galleries shrink, merchandise sits on shelves and weekend honey-do's get done. When he met with the press in mid-December, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem didn't declare a national emergency. But he acknowledged -- cough or clear throat here for embellishment -- the game's No. 1 talent would be missed.
"I'm not saying everything is fine," Finchem said in the conference call. "We're in a down economy. Having the No. 1 player in our sport not playing is not a positive thing."
No, not a positive. That said, there are things to keep in mind before Woods resumes his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus and his 18 professional majors and curtails a pursuit of Wilt Chamberlain and his self-proclaimed record for female liaisons.
At this point, the 2010 season is no different from 2009. After winning the 2008 U.S. Open in dramatic style, a wounded Woods had reconstructive surgery on his knee, and he did not return until March 2009.
As he heals this time, as he attempts to reconstruct his marriage, Woods has given no indication when he might return. But it is hard to imagine his consultations would preclude him from playing in any of the majors, starting with the Masters in April.
This season will be, perhaps, not much different from most seasons in that Woods is not a regular presence on the golf scene anyway. He has played in as many as 20 events only once since 2000. If you eliminate the majors, the World Golf Championships, the Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup, Woods plays a limited number of PGA Tour events. He appears only slightly more often than a cicada.
But when he does reappear, he will bring with him more attention than ever. His indiscreet text messages and problems at home have taken him to a new level of celebrity, one that feeds sports pages and scandal sheets alike. A population titillated by red carpet reporting and gossip will be eagerly awaiting his first appearance. The A.J. Hammers and Nancy Graces of the media world can hardly contain themselves.
A time to heal
As for the world of golf, there are legitimate questions to be answered. The juicy headlines have receded in recent days, but the residual damage remains unclear. When Woods does pick up the sticks again, the cuts might be healed, but the scars will be there for some time to come.
The exposure of Woods' previously private life will be irreversible, at least on some levels. Major sponsors already have abandoned his yacht (which is named "Privacy"). The plexiglass finish of propriety and immaculate character with which Woods had secluded himself has been shattered with a booming slap shot of unseemly exploits.
If Woods can steer clear of Hollywood headlines, time will soften the picture, another celebrity will fall and he will become "so five minutes ago." For now, the response he receives from the golf community may depend somewhat on the status of his marriage. If Mrs. Woods stays with her offending partner, if the family commits to working things out, significant numbers will both empathize and sympathize.
The divorce and separation figures in this country are astounding. More than a few sports fans can relate to what is happening in the Woods household, if on a slightly less dynamic scale. Logic suggests they will pull for the troubled marriage to beat the odds and encourage Woods' comeback.
By the same token, if the problems prove irreconcilable, if the marriage DQs, a divider between good and bad, sympathetic and unsympathetic, will be established -- and we all know on which side of the fence Tiger Woods the "playa" will fall.
Taming the tiger?
What does that mean for Tiger Woods the player, the one with 14 major championships and 71 PGA Tour wins? Will the legendary focus and competitive killer instinct still be there? What happens when the hecklers show up, when jokes about "rescue clubs" start to fly, when crude remarks are heard . . . because you know they're coming.
Will haughty caddie Steve Williams leap into the crowd like a crazed Happy Gilmore? Will Woods be able to ignore the intrusions or does he go Colin Montgomerie on us? What about his sometimes unsettling behavior -- the cold stare-down, the angry F-bombs, the occasional slammed club? Will they still be labeled as "heat of the moment" passion? Will big moments still be punctuated with enraged and defiant fist pumps?
Or will Tiger be tame, demonstratively neutral, kissing babies, signing autographs? Then there is the equipment issue. How does the new groove rule affect Woods, if at all? Will he have the same remarkable recovery shots, will he hit more fairways and live less dangerously, or will his mad skills be even more dominant?
Last but not least, can Woods put all of these issues to bed -- pardon the expression -- by simply winning again?
Inquiring minds, along with Enquiring minds, want to know.
Around golf world
In the meantime, the 2010 schedule that begins without Woods has other curiosities to sustain it. Nothing is going to balance the books, but there are topics that might help fill some gaps should Woods stay away for extended time.
The prospect of Phil Mickelson's resurfacing carries substantial impact. Already popular for his everyman failings and family man values, "Mick the Stick" has the star power to go large. He became a sympathetic figure in 2009, when both his wife and mother were diagnosed with breast cancer. He then became quite the story when he came back from time off in dramatic style, starring in the Presidents Cup, winning the Tour Championship and the HSBC Champions.
Mickelson has not won a major since the 72nd-hole nightmare at the 2006 U.S. Open kept him from winning a third in succession. That was lofty air, and he can approach that altitude again. If he can win the Masters or the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Mickelson will carry a healthy chunk of the load quite nicely, thank you.
Likewise, in golf's overall landscape, Michelle Wie is a person of interest. She is the only player on the LPGA Tour who comes close to creating Woods-like sizzle. The former child star got her first LPGA win late in 2009 and came close to a second before the season was out.
The women won't get started until mid-February and won't play in this country until late March, but if Wie is poised to be the profound figure many predicted she would be -- a 2006 Time magazine issue listed her as "one of the 100 people who shape our world" -- she can do wonderful things for the LPGA and draw crossover attention.
The groove issue is another bullet point. The restrictions on square grooves represent the first equipment rollback by the USGA and the Royal and Ancient in 80 years, meant to take a bite out of innovation for the sake of integrity.
Nicklaus, long a proponent of reeling in technology, feels the new rule is of marginal consequence, in his words a "chair off the Titanic." But PGA Tour player Pat Perez, who used conforming irons to compete at the Chevron World Challenge last month, told Associated Press afterward the experience was a "whole new game."
Will the new rule do its duty, will it make it more difficult for players to spin the ball out of the rough, will it hold players more accountable for a "bomb and gouge" approach? Or will these supremely talented players simply adapt?
"The top players are going to figure out a way to hit their ball close to the hole," Davis Love said. "I have to do it different than, say, Vijay (Singh) does it, but we both figure out a way. I think a majority of players will see a small effect, a small percentage will see a big effect and a small percentage will continue on like they have. In golf, everything is a trade-off."
In addition to new rules and familiar names like Mickelson and Wie, there always is the possibility a new star will emerge. Winless last year, perhaps Anthony Kim will get his act together. Perhaps Rory McIlroy, the Irish lad who finished third at the PGA and 10th at the U.S. Open, is the real deal.
Perhaps Padraig Harrington can reboot what he did in 2008. Perhaps Ernie Els will find it or Singh will still have it. Perhaps Sergio Garcia really isn't just a figment of our imagination. Perhaps one more elder statesman, like Tom Watson or Greg Norman, has one more piece of magic.
As the 2010 season kicks off, Tiger Woods is missing from the scene. But believe it or not, there will be professional golf and there will be stories worth following.
"I want (Woods) to come back and play," Finchem said. "But we are going to be successful in '10. If Tiger is out for a couple of months or eight months of a year, we're going to have a successful year. . . . No sport would be at the same level without its No. 1 player. But I think the doom and gloom needs to go away."
Doom and gloom doesn't wear well in Hawaii, anyway.