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Shotgun Start: Is Tiger done, or merely licking his wounds?


The two-week Asian Diversion continues as many of the game's top players venture to China for the season's final WGC event, where three players have a crack at moving to world No. 1, including Tiger Woods, who vacated that seat for the first time in over five years on Monday. Among other fare, senior writer Steve Elling and Augusta Chronicle columnist and golf writer Scott Michaux take a global gander at the changing of the guard. Or maybe Woods is just taking a siesta.

Let's be blunt: Unseated as No. 1, is the Tiger Woods era over?

Steve Elling ELLING: Did you say aura, or era? I'd say the former has taken a fatal hit over the past 11 months, but claiming that the latter has expired is way too premature. He's damaged, not dead. Next week, Woods defends his title in Australia, which will mark the 12-month anniversary of his last win. Then he'll go into relative hibernation for what he hopes will be a quiet winter -- unlike last year -- and likely won't resurface in a full-field tournament until late January in San Diego. Hey, he won't be skipping the Kapalua opener this time, because he's not eligible. There's a first. If his new swing takes a few months to congeal, the peals will ring loud and long among his critics about how he's lost it. He turns 35 next month and was deposed as king of the golf world by Lee Westwood on Monday, ending a five-year reign. Woods has lost the bulletproof image he had among his peers, that indomitable essence that had guys looking over their shoulder whenever the back nine started Sunday. That's all true, at least for the moment. But he's still talented enough to win two or three tournaments a year, on sheer stubbornness alone if nothing else, even if his putting stroke never recovers. To me, that's the deal-breaker as far as reclaiming his past levels of dominance. He's back working on his full swing again, with his third coach as a pro, which means that his pock-marked short game will to continue to suffer.

Scott Michaux MICHAUX: The era where he dominates the world and the Tiger's share of the majors and stays atop the world rankings for five consecutive years may be over. There simply are too many great players in the world today and Tiger has come back to the field and met them in the middle of the top flight. That's not to say he won't get back on top now and again, probably more often than most. He just isn't as likely to hold and sustain like he used to. He still possesses brilliance at the game and a natural touch and instinct that too many of today's younger players don't have. But he's thinking more than he ever used to and it makes him more ordinary at times. But as he showed in that seven-hole stretch during his singles match at the Ryder Cup, when he puts things together it can still be magnificent. We'll still have to see where things stand now that his life is settling down, he's had time to work with his new swing coach and make it seem like second nature instead of work. By the end of January we'll know more. It's going to be a lot of fun seeing Tiger mixed with everybody else on the biggest stages.

The fourth and final World Golf Championships event of the year begins Thursday in China, though it has largely been lost in the fall shuffle. Can it be fixed?

Steve Elling ELLING: When the PGA Tour Policy Board agreed to annex the HSBC Champions event as a WGC, it came with some huge strings attached, making it an almost incomprehensible mélange for fans to digest. The money is unofficial, because the Policy Board didn't want somebody winning a $1 million purse this late in the year and screwing up the season earnings list, bumping players at the 11th hour out of the top 30 or top 70, money marks that guarantee access into majors or big invitationals the following year. An HSBC victory ensures a three-year PGA Tour exemption, but only for players who already are U.S. members, because the Policy Board didn't want some unsung guy from an obscure tour being granted an exemption that valuable if he had one lucky week. The result is a confusing, quasi-official tournament with a midnight airtime in the States, yet another no-cut cash grab where the rich get richer and only 80 or so guys get to play. A couple of things need to happen for some clarity to be restored here. First, either make the money official or don't sanction it as a tour. Then, grandfather-in the wins by past victors and move it until after the Fall Series so that it doesn't siphon off players who might otherwise consider playing in the States. Finally, expand the field. There are too many limited-field events -- this will mark the eighth of the year -- with no cut and guaranteed paydays. They ought to do likewise at the two other WGC stroke-play events, too. All the asterisks and footnotes associated with the HSBC make it as confusing as the Chinese alphabet.

Scott Michaux MICHAUX: You're right on most every count. The world doesn't need another limited-field event. And the PGA Tour doesn't need any more confusing applications of what counts for official points, cash or whatever. But the WGC series desperately needed to have an anchor event outside the U.S., and this is a step in the right direction. It would be nice to see them take one permanently to Europe as well and make this a truly global enterprise. Of course, I don't know how you keep anything staged in Asia at any time of the season from being lost in the shuffle. Nothing is going to work on tape delay. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth it. Spreading talents like Tiger and Phil and Westwood and McIlroy and Els and everyone else around the world is good for the game no matter the ratings at home. The European Tour has done a better job of expanding into the Asian market. The PGA Tour should do the same. If there is a hesitation at having such a big purse count as official money at the end of the year, why not make it count toward the next year's total? It hasn't hurt Europe any to have wrap-around seasons. It wouldn't kill the PGA Tour to do the same. But if they do that, they need to open the field and make it less restrictive. All of those short-field, guaranteed money, elite events are creating a caste system that is unhealthy and unfair to those not yet in the club.

Should PGA Tour players be given a literacy test?

Steve Elling ELLING: I like the smarmy tone of that query, which is clearly pointed at the latest in a season-long series of rules debacles. Last week at an unofficial tournament pitting celebrities and tour players in China, three different prominent players were given a rule-book smackdown because they either didn't read the local rules sheet or were too dumb to ask for an interpretation from a roving rules official. Hilariously, PGA Tour veteran Ryuji Imada was hit with 26 penalty strokes over his first 13 holes because he took improper relief under the lift-and-clean provisions and didn't know the tournament rule. Six-time major winner Nick Faldo was essentially DQ'd because he picked up a putt. Colin Montgomerie, in the hunt for the $1.25 million first prize, committed a two-shot rules breach that cost him a chance at the title. Everybody remembers the Dustin Johnson disaster at the PGA Championship, and many might recall the incident when Juli Inkster broke a rule that ruined her chance at becoming the LPGA's oldest winner. Outside of Inkster, all of them might have been avoided by simply reading the weekly rules sheet or asking a referee for an opinion before taking further action. Sure, there's always next week's huge pot of golf and another fat payday is usually just around the corner, but this is beyond embarrassing. For goodness sake, Chad Campbell got DQ'd this season for failing to sign in. It's a professional's job to know and adhere to the rules and regs. Failing that, having a caddie with a few living brain cells is a nice backup plan. Managers and umpires meet at home plate before every MLB game to discuss specific stadium ground rules. Even if rules officials appeared on the first tee for every threesome, I suspect many players would not pay attention. It's never a good sign when the knuckleheads in the media know more about the rules than the millionaires playing the game. Then again, we know how to read. And, occasionally, write.

Scott Michaux MICHAUX: It's not illiteracy that's bringing them down. It's laziness. These guys just don't bother reading anything. If having millions of dollars at stake doesn't get them to briefly scan the local instructions once a week, what will? Maybe they should be told upon checking in (assuming they remember to sign up) that there are some irregularities from the ordinary boiler-plate rules and be made to read and sign the bullet points right then and there before they are allowed to get up from the table. But they're grown men who should understand how to be responsible for their own career well-being. That said, what's with all the silly little local rules? On occasion it makes sense when a course has unique characteristics that need addressing, but most of the time (like those ridiculous gallery-trod bunkers at Whistling Straits) it's just unnecessary. And as global as the game is today, shouldn't there just be one set of rules for taking relief? Whether it's the length of a scorecard or the length of a club, just pick one and make it universal. I personally like the one scorecard-length measure that got Imada in trouble; it keeps the ball closer to the same general conditions during lift-and-clean circumstances. As for Monty getting dinged for breaking a rule in Asia, do we know that it was inadvertent? Or was he mad and pleading "don't start this" with the rules official because he got caught? Just asking.


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