Woods, embroiled in a messy scandal involving multiple extra-marital affairs, hasn’t played at Kapalua since 2005 and rarely begins his season until the Tour event at Torrey Pines, Calif. (Jan. 28). That means the Tour has three weeks until it starts feeling the effect of Woods’ self-imposed leave of absence.

But the weeks to follow will demonstrate how severe a ratings and attendance hit a Woods-less Tour could be. After Torrey Pines, Woods would have played the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am Feb. 11, since the U.S. Open will be there in June. He also likely would have played the Accenture Match Play and perhaps the Tour events in Miami and Orlando as tune-ups for the Masters in Augusta, Ga., April 8-11.

If Woods decides to return for the Masters — or even the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, which he won last year — the overall fallout of low TV ratings and attendance could be minimal.

If Woods’ return doesn’t come until much later, who knows?

The only good news is that the Tour has some recent history in doing without its top drawing card. The Tour made it through the latter half of 2008 and early 2009 when Woods was out following knee surgery, and all that happened was veterans such as Padraig Harrington (two major titles in 2008) and Vijay Singh (the FedEx Cup champion in 2008) stepped into the breach with spectacular performances.

In addition, young players such as Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas proved they have the game to challenge anyone — including Woods.

The potential is there for more of the same.

“We feel very confident, like we have seen in [Woods’] other absence, that a number of players will step to the forefront,” said Ty Votaw, the Tour’s executive vice-president for communication. “We’re going to find out which players are going to step up and fans are going to want to follow that. If the past is prologue, great players and stories have emerged when Tiger has been out.”

And regardless of how long that might be, a sport built on star power has always managed to survive when one of the stars fades.

“Golf and the PGA Tour has always been bigger than one player,” said 10-time Tour winner and 1988 Players champion Mark McCumber of Jacksonville. “Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus … they all their time, and when they weren’t there any longer, the Tour went on. Will ratings and attendance be down in the short term? Yes. But I see a lot of potential for veterans like Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk, and young players like Ricky Barnes and Anthony Kim to carry the Tour.”

Hampton Golf president M.G. Orender, a past president of the PGA of America and a former member of the PGA Tour Policy Board, agreed that the Tour has never been about one player, even when that dominant player was in his prime.

“Tiger was the player of the year last year, but he didn’t win a major, and that was an opportunity for four other excellent players to make a statement,” Orender said about 2009 major champions Angel Cabrera of Argentina, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and Y.E. Yang of South Korea.

Orender also said doomsayers need to look outside the U.S.

“We’ve got to stop thinking completely in terms of domestic TV ratings and attendance, and look at the global picture,” he said. “Y.E. Yang won the PGA to become the first Asian to win a major, beat Tiger down the stretch, and that has energized golf fans in Asia. Cabrera has won two majors in the last three years, which certainly has gotten people excited in South America — especially with golf being part of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro [in 2016]. Professional golf is in very good shape from a global standpoint.”

Votaw said the Tour’s business is relatively healthy, given the recession and its slow recovery. The Tour concluded 13 business deals by the end of 2009 that were either new title sponsorships, extensions or enhancements of deals with existing corporate partners.

“What we’ve been able to accomplish from the amount of business we’ve been able to write in a difficult economy is very encouraging,” he said.

The Woods storyline obviously will dominate the season. How long will he stay out? What will be his first start? How will he perform? What will happen with his marriage?

But observers say there are many other compelling issues from a competitive standpoint:

–Will young players such as Rory McIlroy of Ireland, Ryo Ishikawa of Japan, Nationwide Tour player of the year Michael Sim of Australia, Ricky Barnes and Rickie Fowler push their way into the headlines?

“I love the focus and work ethic of these young guys,” said Charley Moore, a veteran agent who now represents players such as Singh and David Duval. “They’ve got the best of everything these days, coaching, equipment that matches their swings … they’ve got every advantage out there. Some of those guys are going to win tournaments this year.”

–Will Mickelson, who is the Tour’s marquee player with Woods inactive, build on the momentum he got by winning the Tour Championship and the HSBC Champions late last year — both with a healthy Woods in the field? Mickelson’s wife and mother also are doing well in their respective battles against cancer.

“I hear from people that Phil is playing as well right now than he ever has,” McCumber said. “If he comes out and wins early, it will be great for the Tour.”

–Will other veterans challenge Mickelson? Moore said Singh is “feeling great” after an injury-plagued 2009 season. Votaw noted that two players who had not won recently, Jim Furyk and Adam Scott, won significant off-season events in December, Furyk the Chevron World Challenge and Scott captured the Australian Open.

–Will the two budding stars of the 2008 season, Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas, return to the winner’s circle? Kim hasn’t won since May of 2008 but played well in the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cups. Villegas won two PGA Tour playoffs in 2008 and finished second to Singh in FedEx Cup points, but hasn’t won since that late-season surge.

However, the caveat to those storylines could be summed up thusly: Great … when’s Tiger coming back?

Even though Woods will be missing time for reasons completely different than a knee injury, Moore said the comeback, when it does happen, will generate far more interest than last year.

“Regardless of the reason, it’s going to result in even higher ratings, attendance and interest when Tiger returns,” Moore said.”When it was coming off a knee injury, it was largely sports and golf fans who were following his comeback. This time, you’re going to have a lot of other people who were not golf fans, but who have been following this story in the conventional media and the tabloids. Their eyeballs are going to be on it. From standpoints such as ratings, it’s going to be huge.”

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