Absence of Tiger makes Tour a safer place for all


CADDIE'S ROLE:Woods is conspicuous by his absence - and so is the uncouth mob that rampages after him, writes Colin Byrne

THE FINAL World Golf Championship of the year was held at the Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, last weekend. The Bridgestone Invitational had as strong a field as this week's PGA Championship but it seemed something - or rather someone - was missing.

I noticed the New York Times correspondent didn't bother to show up till midweek. If the "main man" had been about he would have been in Ohio with a thick notepad at the ready by early Monday morning.

If a hint of apathy has seeped under the door of the press room then the opposite could be said of the attitude in the locker-room. Knowing the "great one" is not playing has sharpened the competitive edge of players who had tacitly submitted to the Woods winning spell.

There is a new mindset from the early part of the week: "Tiger is not here so we have a better chance of winning."

The idea is to get into a position to win come the back nine on Sunday, when of course the obvious absence of Tiger has a huge impact. Not to discredit the rest of the field, but when the most fearsome of competitors is not there it does inevitably remove a serious obstacle to title-

chasers on those closing holes.

There is no doubt that in Woods's absence the numbers are down in all areas. The television ratings have dropped and the number of live spectators has dwindled.

But there is a benefit. Overall it is a more pleasant experience to be at an event without the uncivilised mob that usually stomp all over the course in pursuit of the world number one.

I talked to some regular spectators on tour in the States, and they agreed it was much more enjoyable to be at an event without Tiger playing.

Last week was seemingly the busiest week in professional golf worldwide. With the US Seniors Open in Colorado; the alternative PGA Tour event in Reno with a controversial lady playing; the regular Nationwide event in Nebraska; and the Women's British Open in Sunningdale all going on at the same time, it had to be a feast for fans, who could potentially watch the game all day long on television.

At some events we visit around the globe we are presented with brochures about the resident flora and fauna. We have been at events in Germany where the presence of a rare and endangered frog in a pond has led to the redesign of an adjacent hole for conservation purposes.

Well, the sight of a very large black bear looking even more bemused than some competitors on the 13th hole at the Broadmoor golf club in Colorado Springs during the second round at the US Seniors was a little more alarming than the sound of a toad going "ribbet" from his protected swamp in Bavaria.

The big black bear wandered out of the wilderness and onto the East Course, crossing the fairway between ESPN's on-course analyst Dottie Pepper and Bernhard Langer and his caddie Terry Holt, before trying to mingle with spectators. Neither the bear nor the spectators were harmed; apparently the animal had already dined.

After assessing the situation the bear eventually wandered home of his own accord.

The authorities thought they had all angles of on-course security covered, with bodyguards accompanying marquee groups. They had to call in the wildlife experts for the weekend in case the bear decided to come back with his family for another look at the closing stages to the tournament.

Two other big names obliged the sponsors in Ohio by coming in first and second in the weekend denouement. Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson were the final pairing on Saturday, which softened the no-Tiger blow for the media.

There are some dubious tactics being used by the sponsors to up their television ratings. Not that the black bear in Colorado was a carefully orchestrated stunt to gain attention. But inviting the talented if somewhat badly advised Michelle Wie to play in the Reno/Tahoe Open - a PGA Tour event - was an act of blatant opportunism.

Young Michelle's first involvement in a men's tournament came when she was invited to play in the Sony Open in her native Hawaii. That was understandable as a one-off.

Of course tournaments need to be promoted. But for the tour to continually support her failed attempts to perform (last week was her eighth failure to make the cut in a men's event), when she is obviously out of her depth, is hard to understand.

Michelle seems a pleasant young lady who has been manipulated and misdirected by mature adults who should know better. The poor girl has been gifted with a talent to play golf but greed and mismanagement are hampering her true enjoyment and expression of that gift.

Of course the main man is absent again this week in Detroit. But watching the rest deal with the pressures of trying to win a Major is always fascinating. It should be another enthralling few days.