BETHESDA, Md. -- Golf has always been a game predominantly played and watched by white men. That all changed in the late ‘90s, when Tiger Woods -- who has black, Asian and American Indian ancestry -- burst onto the scene, positioning himself as potentially the greatest golfer to ever play the game.
But now, an infidelity scandal, an ugly divorce and many surgeries later, Woods' future in the game is in doubt. A microcosm of that uncertainty, both for the player and the sport itself, was on display this weekend at Congressional Country Club for the Quicken Loans National.
Previously called the AT&T National, the tournament secured a four-year endorsement from its new sponsor largely thanks to Woods, who hosts the event and uses it as a fundraiser for his foundation. No other active golfer, or, really, athlete in any sport, owns the kind of caché to be able to pull something like that off.
Of course, part of the bargain for Quicken Loans includes Woods playing in the tournament, even if he was only three months removed from back surgery when the first round began on Thursday. Woods admitted he wouldn't have played at all if it weren't his tournament, contrary to his agent's remarks earlier in the week.
"Expectations don't change," Woods said prior to the competition. "That's the ultimate goal. It's just that it's going to be a little bit harder this time. I just haven't had the amount of prep and reps that I would like. But I'm good enough to play, and I'm going to give it a go."
His lack of preparedness showed. The once dominant superstar scuffled his way through rounds of 74 and 75, missing the cut line by four shots. That marked just his 10th missed cut in nearly 300 career PGA tournaments since going pro in 1996.
Woods announced that, much like the last time he was injured and missed this event, he would not stick around for Sunday to present the trophy to eventual winner Justin Rose.
A Tiger-less tournament left a field of players largely unknown outside of the golfing world. At 4 p.m. on Sunday, nine players were within two shots of the lead, but Rose was the only one with a major win or any real notoriety.
Instead of flooded galleries roaring for Tiger, modestly filled tee box areas greeted Rose on an individual basis. Spectators offered up and received high fives or a fist pump as the Brit climbed the hill to the 16th tee.
By the time Rose made his way down the 18th fairway for the second time after going to a playoff with virtual unknown Shawn Stefani, only a couple thousand spectators remained in the galleries flanking the final approach.
"Can you imagine what this would be like if it was a playoff between Tiger and [Jordan] Spieth?" a high school golfer in the gallery pondered out loud.
It's a question worth asking. After increasing attendance every day Tuesday through Friday over 2013 numbers (up 12 percent overall), a suddenly Tiger-free event drew 14 percent fewer fans Saturday than the year before.
Television ratings have reflected a similar syndrome surrounding the presence or absence of Woods. Ratings for The Players Championship in May were down 54 percent from when Woods won the event the year prior, dipping to its lowest mark in 15 years.
All of this isn't to say that interest in golf is dying, only that without Tiger, it seems to be returning to what it was before Woods seemingly changed the face of the game forever some two decades ago.
With plain, white Congressional polos retailing for $75 in the merchandise tent (one of the cheaper items was a $15 poster of, who else, Tiger), the demographics of the game's fans will always be somewhat restrictive.
But for the golf fans in attendance, the ones who will attend regardless of the players on the course, the setting could not have been more serene. Warm weather cascaded down from blue skies above, but the temperature remained cooler and less humid than a normal late-June weekend. On the way out, a group of friends discussed the day. One asked the other if he had enjoyed himself.
"Golf in the morning, golf in the afternoon...you can't have a better day than that," he replied.
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