The Arnold Palmer Invitational, one of the great events on the PGA Tour, spent the last week celebrating one of the game's icons of the past and illuminating the next significant problem of the future.
While most of the country watched Kentucky and Wichita State exchange blows in the NCAA Tournament, the PGA Tour's annual Florida swing, a highlight of the season's schedule often dominated by Tiger Woods, concluded Sunday night not without drama but in relative obscurity. Adam Scott, the No. 2 player in the world behind Woods, breezed through the first three rounds and started Sunday with a three-shot lead. It was the best-case scenario, the biggest name in the field and probably the best player in the world at the moment making his first big statement of the year just three weeks in advance of a title defense at Augusta. He was playing with Keegan Bradley in the final group of the day, another ascendant prospect and former major winner.
Arnold Palmer Invitational
Matt Every upsets Adam Scott
Sunday started with two big names and former majors winners in the final group at Bay Hill, but it was Matt Every, a Florida native known to many for a marijuana arrest, who came from behind for the win in an emotional finish.
Arnold Palmer Invitational
And despite that ideal confluence in the final group, the biggest story of the week had already happened five days prior, and whatever occurred with the Bradley-Scott duo Sunday wasn't changing that. Tiger Woods has become the identity of this tournament. The event is propelled by the imprimatur of Arnold Palmer on everything, pushing it to the status it holds as one of the best non-major stops of the year. But Woods, who has won here eight times, had become the reason we always marked it off as one of those important non-majors that would draw everyone in, and we knew we were going to watch.
Tiger won at Bay Hill four straight years at the start of the century. He won here the last two years -- the 2012 title ending the lengthy drought post personal scandal, the 2013 win finally putting him back at No. 1 in the world. It's a big tournament because big things often happen with the biggest player in the history of the game. That element was removed Tuesday when Woods released a statement that he would not be playing this week. His back, which wrecked his Florida swing, was still not right. The reason we've come to identify this tournament as such a big deal was gone two days before things teed off.
The tournament would, of course, go on -- as all the non-Tiger events do. World-class players, who are probably better golfers than Tiger right now, continued to play for a $6.2 million purse and lots of other benefits. But the larger audience -- casual golf fans, sports fans -- were lost once Tiger withdrew. Outside of the force of personality of the host, who is 84 years old, Scott became the big draw. He's a marketable top talent who has won a major, is playing well right now and set a course record in the first round. But the tournament still sputtered.
More from Bay Hill
This is the biggest challenge the PGA Tour faces preparing for the post-Tiger world. There are already two classes of tournaments on the schedule: the Tiger events and the non-Tiger events. There's a difference and it matters. Woods is the ultimate moneymaker and stamp of legitimacy for a tournament, and everyone else in the world, even Phil Mickelson, could show up and it wouldn't carry the weight of a Tiger commitment. How does the PGA Tour get past this? There will never be another Tiger Woods, so should they even try?
Phil, who's five years older than Woods, is the second biggest draw. Here's how the Valero Texas Open, an event he almost never plays, decided to market their tourney this week when Mickelson made the announcement he would add the San Antonio stop to his pre-Masters schedule.
Subtle - pic.twitter.com/VLS1FegBZ4— Kyle Porter (@KylePorterCBS) March 19, 2014
Both Woods and Mickelson are still competitive, last summer swatting away the next-gen crop of players we always hear is about to rise to 1-2 in the world rankings. It was the same as ever. But Phil is hitting the sunset of his career, and while Woods may play on the PGA Tour for the next 12 years, the Tour should start preparing as if he's already moved on.
There are really talented young players making tons of cash, but Woods is so clearly the once-in-a-lifetime force that we'll never get again. Rickie Fowler has a ubiquitous commercial presence, but he has won just one tournament. Dustin Johnson is a freak athlete and the most talented of all, but he regularly checks out and fails to activate the talent to intimidate and overwhelm his peers. Jordan Spieth looks like he could be the next big thing for American golf, becoming the first teenage winner on Tour in more than 80 years, but he's a reserved and straight personality for just a 20-year-old. He's probably the best hope to approach the kind of winning record we got from Tiger, but we still have no idea what Spieth will become. These are three of a handful of guys the Tour aggressively pushes and will continue to push to try to inform and draw in an audience beyond the Tiger world.
The irony of Tiger Woods having nonpareil draw and appeal is that outside of his golf shots, he's usually boring, frosty or completely closed off. Dan Jenkins, who has followed all of golf's influential figures since the 1940s, recently told Grantland's Bryan Curtis that "[Woods] is a hell of a talent. He just happens to be an asshole." He added in an interview with Texas Monthly that Woods doesn't let anyone get to know him because he has nothing of interest to say. "All he knows is how to hit a golf ball," Jenkins said. It's why we always go back to that Esquire profile from Charles Pierce, when Woods momentarily opened up, to attempt to glean something about who he is now, even though almost 17 years have passed. We have few resources to try and understand anything beyond the calculated and defensive golf genius we always get.
But Tiger busted through a mostly white sport, attracted Nike into golf and won every damn thing to make him the biggest draw in the history of the game. Now he's 38, often injured, and not winning majors. Those majors will take a hit from Tiger's absence once he's gone, but they will continue to stand on their own as the four major championships. It's the keeping up of the rest of golf's season -- the purses, the ratings, the crowds, the sponsors -- that will be the biggest future challenge for the PGA Tour and Jay Monahan, who appears to be the next commissioner starting around 2016. Fans, media and audiences continue to gravitate to Tiger, and even Phil, and that was apparent yet again in the turn the Arnold Palmer Invitational made from Tuesday to Sunday.
Matt Every at the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Photo: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
(By the way, not Adam Scott but Matt Every -- a once cocky-as-hell top prospect who's been arrested for marijuana possession, sat through a memorable interview so cringe-inducing it became funny, and had no victories at age 30 -- won on Sunday night to earn his first Masters berth and more money in one day than he has earned in any season. The Florida native and UF product broke down crying after Bradley missed a game-tying putt on No. 18. So, in case you missed it, we did get a pretty cool story to cap off the week.)