Commentary

Five things we learned about Tiger

Updated: December 6, 2011, 3:19 PM ET
By Farrell Evans | ESPN.com

Before his win at Chevron on Sunday, it had been more than two years since Tiger Woods won a tournament. Much in the world has changed. An Arab Spring has changed the Middle East and two mass murderers (Muammar Gaddafi and Osama Bin Laden) have met their makers.

Some had forecasted a slow death for the PGA Tour after Tiger slammed his Cadillac Escalade into a tree outside his house on Thanksgiving night in 2009, but the tour has thrived. There are new youthful stars and a new TV deal for golf's leading professional circuit.

We've also learned that golf is truly hard for everybody, even for people who seemingly walk on water like Tiger Woods, who found his game at the Chevron, where the swing he had didn't matter at all.

Marketing the young guns

Since 1996, the PGA Tour has promoted Tiger almost above everything else. Phil Mickelson and whoever was playing great at any given time -- Vijay Singh, David Duval, Sergio Garcia -- got their piece of the limelight, but the lion's share of the buzz always centered around what Tiger was doing. If Tiger wasn't in an event, the band played on, but those tournaments were always perceived as being somehow inferior to the circus around the once No. 1 player in the world, even though there might be a $5 million or $6 million purse on the line.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Allan Henry/US PresswireTiger Woods raised the trophy at the 2011 Chevron World Challenge. It had been more than two years since his previous victory anywhere in the world.

Then suddenly Tiger wasn't playing, either due to injury or for personal reasons. The tour still had events every week to promote. But thankfully it has been gifted with the emergence of Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy, Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley, Adam Scott and Nick Watney, who have all brought a youthful zest and optimism to the game.

This move doesn't mean that the tour won't continue to promote Tiger with the same enthusiasm, but it will pay greater attention to the next generation of players who will replace Tiger as the benchmarks of the game. That's a good long-term plan for golf, not just for the PGA Tour.

Golf is a hard game
Many of us had come to take for granted that as long as Tiger was healthy, he would be unbeatable. Woods had gone through swing changes and injuries before and subsequently regained his dominance in the game. No one could have imagined it would take him a full two years to win another tournament.

But what we learned is that not even perhaps the greatest of all time can win without being near the top of his game. There are more good players now than ever: more players with power games and good putters. Everybody it seems can now do what only a handful could do when Tiger first came on the PGA Tour.

Yet a multitude of things had to go in Tiger's favor for him to win many of those 71 PGA Tour events. It wasn't always because he was so much better than the rest of the field. He has needed a lucky bounce or two and a competitor who didn't put up much of a fight down the stretch on the last day of a tournament.

Yet lately all the little things that make winning possible were not coming so easily for Tiger. He still wanted it as much. When he was healthy, he practiced with the same intensity. The swing coach and great attention to course management were ever-present, but he couldn't summon the low scores.

Tiger was human. He had always hit bad shots. But now he couldn't make the miraculous recovery from the woods or sink the 25-foot putt to get into a playoff or win the tournament. The game had finally caught up to him.

Do the world rankings matter?

Tiger did finish in a tie for fourth in back-to-back Masters in 2010 and 2011 and he had a tie for fourth at the 2010 U.S. Open, but it's interesting that he didn't have a greater fall in the world rankings during the last two years. At his worst, he dropped to 58th in the world. That's mostly due to the points lead he had amassed over the years, but shouldn't a world ranking better reflect the current performance of a player? We know that world rankings aren't always the best indicators of how well a player will perform in any tournament. But shouldn't there be some immediacy about them?

With the win at Chevron, Tiger rose to 21st in the rankings, but does it mean that he's better than Bill Haas, Garcia, Bo Van Pelt or Bradley, all guys ranked behind him but who all won this year around the world?

We had gotten so accustomed to seeing him as the No. 1 player in the world. When he lost the top spot on Halloween 2010 to Lee Westwood after five years and 281 weeks, it was a major news story. But Tiger had gone that whole year without winning a tournament. The top ranking was supposed to represent the arrival of Westwood as the next great player, but he couldn't live up to the precedent set by Woods. Now Luke Donald has taken over, and while he has been very successful, he's not winning majors.

For now Donald is the No. 1 player in the world and Tiger is 21st best, according to the latest Official World Golf Ranking. But everybody knows that differential won't mean anything come April at Augusta, where Tiger is king.

The golf swing

The other day I got an email from Hank Haney, rightly correcting me for misstating in a story that Tiger fired him. Mr. Haney had actually resigned before it came to any kind of boardroom conference to discuss his relationship with his boss. I knew this so I apologized for the mistake and thanked him for visiting ESPN.com.

That little exchange made me ponder his demise as Tiger's coach in the summer of 2010. By Haney's account, Tiger had won 44 percent of his tournaments over the last 2 years with him as coach and finished in the top three in another 43 percent. In golf that's an amazing winning percentage. Was all the criticism that led Haney to quit merited? Nothing is ever completely a teacher's fault. Tiger was selective with the advice that he took from Haney. But that's probably the case with any teacher-pupil relationship.

At the 2010 PGA Championship, Tiger began working with Sean Foley. For more than a year now Tiger has given us updates about his growing comfort level with Foley's swing. Finally at Chevron it all came together for Tiger: the mechanics of the swing, the comfort level with the idea of the swing, the idea that he could hit the ball where he wanted to with the swing, the idea that he could win again with an obsession with the swing. The Swing.

Ultimately, Tiger's new swing wasn't the main reason why he won on Sunday. All he did was play like his old self. Sometimes he hit it wildly and sometimes he hit it straight. His putting and iron play down the stretch were the real difference-maker. He made two consecutive birdies to finish off Zach Johnson, who never backed down.

These past two years all he could talk about was his golf swing and poor health and how he would play better if those two things were fixed. But in the end he seemed to forget everything that he knew about the swing and the mental hindrances of the bad leg and just played golf. It's about time. Maybe now we can rest all the talk about the swing.

TV golf survives

In September, the PGA Tour announced that it had reached rights-fee deals with CBS and the NBC Sports group that will run through 2021. The current deal, which runs through the end of next year, represented a 35 percent increase over the previous deal. When the current deal was announced at the beginning of 2006, Tiger was coming off a 2005 season where he had six wins, including his fourth Masters. The game was at the height of Tigermania.

When talks came around for the new deal that starts in 2013, there was speculation that Tiger's fall from the top of the game would have a negative impact on the PGA Tour's ability to grow its TV revenues and share of the ever-expanding sports TV audience. But the tour did a deal that not only appears to have shored up the stability of TV golf for the next decade, at least, it more importantly ramped up its efforts to reach golf fans through handheld devices.

It was a lesson for many of us that while Tiger brings outsized ratings when he plays, the demand for TV golf is strong enough to flourish without Tiger's periodic fist pumps on Sunday.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.