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Tiger Woods’ absence leaves golf in great shape

This is not to deny that Woods has been a focal point. Where he scores is in his ability to attract floating voters, those sports fans who do not naturally gravitate towards the driving range on a Sunday morning. But then something similar could be said of Roger Federer, or Usain Bolt, or LeBron James. Every sport, by definition, must have its top dog. “Corporate America has been in love with golf for a long time,” says Tim Crow, head of the sports-marketing group Synergy. “You had Hogan, Nicklaus, Watson and Arnold Palmer – the man who really got it all started in the modern era with the help of Mark McCormack.

“Yes, Tiger versus Phil Mickelson grew into a worthy successor to those great head-to-head battles. And when you didn’t have either of them figuring in the last two rounds of the Masters, there was definitely a lack of star power. But the game is much bigger than one man. Even through the economic downturn, its ecosystem has stayed pretty robust.”

What Woods has not done – at least, not to the extent that many hoped – is to revolutionise the social profile of golf. This remains a largely white, often stuffy sport that reeks of unexamined privilege.

In fact, the more you look at the Woods debate, the more you have to conclude that “Great man theory” is no more convincing when applied to sport than when the 19th-century historian Thomas Carlyle coined the idea in the first place.

We do occasionally see a Napoleon-type figure who changes the course of history. Without the phenomenon that was Bjorn Borg, the Edberg-Wilander-Enqvist generation would never have existed, let alone achieved the “Swedish slam”: all four tennis majors in 1988. But Borgs/Napoleons are rare and their impact only lasts for so long. Markus Eriksson is now Sweden’s top male tennis player, and he is ranked No 361.

To return to golf, the sport does face challenges. In the UK, participation has dropped by 16 per cent in the past decade. In the US more courses are closing than opening. But this has less to do with the TV product – which is still strong, despite individual fluctuations – than with social factors: the growing urbanisation of young people, a lack of patience for the game’s frustrations in the age of Angry Birds. As usual, the real story can be found in a “long series of complex influences”, to quote Carlyle’s chief critic, Herbert Spencer.

As for Woods himself, there is no need to panic. Even after missing the Masters, he remains well clear of Adam Scott at the top of the world rankings. And when his decline inevitably accelerates, history and precedent suggest that the next bus – Jordan Spieth, perhaps? – will only be around the corner.

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