Only the shadow knows if Tiger is long gone

Apparently coming out of the wild blue yonder to win the British Open doesn’t make for great theatre these days, or so says the record-low 2.1 television rating that ESPN drew for the final round of the British Open.

Louis Oosthuizen looked like a great story to me – young kid with a farm background; never sniffed it before in a major; a South African who prevailed on Nelson Mandella’s birthday; nicknamed “Shrek” because of the gap in his front teeth and big ears – but “King Louie’’ he is not, said the golf world.

Just goes to show you how jaded we have become. Tiger Woods gets caught in the sex scandal of the century (to date, any way) and he remains the No. 1 most popular athlete in the world, according to a recent Harris Interactive poll. That he is tied for that dubious distinction in that poll with Kobe Bryant – I’m’ not making this up! – says it all.

But, once again, “apparently,’’ people want Tiger and not Louie, Louie. Even though Greg Norman told Oosthuizen that it was the first time he ever watched “every shot by the champion’’ in a British Open, a lot of people disagreed with me and the Shark.

Why are we so wrapped up in Woods, who finished tied for 23rd at St. Andrews? I’m afraid it’s a sign of the sad state of professional sports. (Just look at LeFraud James!) And a sign we’re tied to the past, as golf aficionados were pretty wrapped up in Tiger’s quest to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors before everything went wrong for Woods.

But it’s time to get over it, at least in golf. Woods probably is not going to break Jack’s record, and I think most people would agree with me when I say, “Thank, God!’’ Mark McGuirre’s steroid-tainted assault on another of my beloved heroes, Hank Aaron, was the all-time abberation in sports. As Popeye once fumed, “That’s all me can take, and me can’t take no more.’’

Here’s why Woods will come up short (and this might have happened any way): Nicklaus was a freak of nature and Tiger is just freaky.

Consider this:

Bobby Jones played golf for 20 years but captured his 13 majors in a seven-year time frame (1923-30); Ben Hogan played the game for 25 years but won his nine majors also in seven years (1946-53); Tom Watson has played the game for 35 years but won his eight majors in eight years (1975-83); Sam Snead played the game for 40 years but acquired his seven majors also in eight years; and Arnold Palmer played the game for 25 years and claimed his seven majors in six years (1958-64).

So you kind of see the pattern here, don’t you? Six to eight years is the peak of a golfer’s career in terms of winning majors. Woods has taken 11 years to win 14 majors (1997-2008) but 12 of those majors were won in a seven-year span (1999-2006).

Nicklaus? The Golden Bear won his 18 majors over 24 years (1962-86), although 17 of them were won in a 18-year window (1962-80). In comparison to his peers, he was a freak, and I mean that in a good way.

Considering all that’s come down on Woods, I don’t see him holding up the same way Nicklaus did, although he’ probably at least eight years to prove me wrong — and he’s done it before. Sure, at 34 years of age Tiger still has some goodwill hunting. But trust me when I say he’s no longer the No. 1 player in the world – he’s just a top-10 guy at best.

It’s been over two years since Woods, winless this year, has won a major, and his game doesn’t look good enough to hold up at Whistling Straits when the PGA Championship unfolds there in three weeks. Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews were supposed to play right into Tiger’s hands this year but they didn’t. Now he comes to a course where he finished T-24 in 2004 desperately seeking a way out of his major slump.

It’s not going to happen, and I’m sure the ratings will go begging at the PGA, too. Especially when you consider the trend lately, that a first-time winner in a major has won five of the last seven times on golf’s biggest stages. Only Phil Mickelson earlier this year at the Masters, and Angel Cabrera at the 2008 Masters, got in the way.

Oh, it’s too bad, really. Oosthuizen, who celebrated his win at the British by buying a  John Deere tractor instead of a Ferrari – again, I’m not making this up! — was a wonderful story but for some reason most golf fans are not satisfied these days with heart-felt wins.

They want Tiger, and Woods is all but a shadow of  his former himself.

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