- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 10, 2011

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — The world’s top-ranked player faced more empty seats than reporters when he met with the media before the PGA Championship.

The golfer who triumphed just last weekend has been overshadowed by the guy who carries his bag.

This is what the sport has come to without Tiger Woods winning with such regularity, with such dominance, that everyone else knew they were playing for second before they even got to the course.

Some might say, good riddance! No one wants to see the same champion week after week, year after year.

Then again, this parity thing doesn’t seem to be working out quite as well for golf as it does for, say, the NFL. Transcendent stars such as Woods and Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer are the ones who lure fans through the gates, pump up the TV ratings and move merchandise for the all-important sponsors.

Woods grew up in Southern California watching the Los Angeles Lakers face the Boston Celtics year after year in the NBA Finals. Then along came Michael Jordan, who won six titles in eight years during the 1990s.

“That’s as good as it gets,” Woods said Wednesday.

Golf used to have a similar force in Woods, who captured a staggering 14 major titles over a dozen years. Now, there’s no clear-cut favorite at the biggest events, including the PGA Championship that begins Thursday at Atlanta Athletic Club.

“You can’t say that when Tiger was winning lots of major championships, it was boring or dull,” Lee Westwood said. “It was exciting to watch and see what he would do next.”

Rory McIlroy notwithstanding, golf seems to be flailing just a bit, looking desperately for the Next Big Thing just in case Woods doesn’t come all way back from personal chaos and a faltering body.

“I’m not sure which is better,” said world No. 1 Luke Donald, speaking to about 20 reporters Tuesday in a room that could have held a ot more. “I’d probably sway toward one person dominating. I think it brings a little bit more focus to the sport.”

Woods hasn’t won a major since his remarkable victory at the 2008 U.S. Open, hobbling through an 18-hole playoff on a knee that needed major surgery. The following year, his marriage fell apart amid allegations of serial philandering. This year, another leg injury kept him from playing in either the U.S. Open or the British Open.

After a three-month layoff, Woods returned last week at Firestone but wasn’t a factor, finishing 18 strokes behind winner Adam Scott.

Hardly anyone is picking Woods to win this week. He’s slipped to 30th in the world and is getting more attention for dumping longtime caddie Steve Williams than anything he’s done lately on the course.

Clarke, for one, misses the good ol’ days when Woods was at his peak.

“Tiger was the best player for a very long time, and he raised the bar in terms of what everybody else did and everybody else’s preparation,” said Clarke, who became one of golf’s oldest first-time major champions when he captured the British Open at age 42. “Tiger has been wonderful for the game. He really has.”

Donald knows it will be a lot easier to win his first major if you-know-who never regains the form he once had. Still, the Englishman recognizes that a player such as Woods appeals to everyone from the serious fan to someone who doesn’t know the difference between a birdie and a bogey.

Without Woods at his peak, there’s just not the same buzz, much as it was for the NBA after Jordan faded away.

“The fans always enjoy the hero, the one player who does dominate that they can cheer for,” Donald said. “Tiger was that person, obviously.”

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