RALEIGH, N.C. -- Roughly a month from a U.S. Open scheduled for one of his favorite golf courses, there can be no certainty that Tiger Woods will compete at Pebble Peach.
After withdrawing about a third of the way through the final round of the Players Championship on Sunday, Woods said he was suffering from a previously undisclosed neck ailment that required medical help.
Though only Woods knows the extent of his pain, it's difficult to imagine that he was hurting more Sunday at TPC Sawgrass than he was during the 2008 U.S. Open at San Diego's Torrey Pines course.
That was the weekend Woods won the Open title after a Monday playoff against Rocco Mediate that went 19 holes. Still in obvious pain from a knee that had been operated only a couple of months earlier, Woods practically limped through the tournament.
That entire 2008 season, Woods played in only six PGA Tour events. Yet there was no keeping him out of the Open.
But the Tiger seen by the sports world at Charlotte a couple of weeks ago and at last weekend's Players Championship obviously doesn't come across as the same irrepressible competitor of 2008. He doesn't even come across as the guy who shot a 75 during the final round and couldn't put away Y.E. Yang during the 2009 PGA Championship last August.
By his standards, Woods was awful during that PGA closing round in Minnesota. But there was no questioning his intensity, just as there wasn't when he finished five strokes off Phil Mickelson's winning score last month in the Masters.
Whether it was the result of neck pain or the mental stress he can blame on only himself, Woods has looked lost the past two weeks. His mannerisms on and off the course seem to be of a person who would rather be almost anywhere else except on a golf course in front of thousands of spectators, with millions more watching on television.
That behavior is understandable, of course. It's possibly even good for Woods and those around him. Perhaps a golf sabbatical would recharge his batteries and maybe even allow the spotlight on his family to fade.
However, no Tiger is bad news for the PGA Tour. It may not necessarily be bad for golf in general. But if Woods sits out the Open, the USGA's television ratings for the event will plummet straight through the floor.
A Masters-like performance by Mickelson would soften the ratings slide, but not enough to avoid a big blow to the financial bottom line.
Regardless of whether Woods plays the Open, the summer of 2010 will go down as one of the most important in PGA Tour history. The PGA, the TV networks and all of the cottage industries on the sport's outskirts are getting a glimpse of life without Woods. Until the events that changed his life in November, no one close to the golf engine room had any reason to think he wouldn't be a front-line draw for another 10 to 15 years.
Those same folks now have to be uneasy about getting another 10 to 15 months out of their sport's most important performer ever.