It's a question that has been consistently asked in the past 13 years, from the time Tiger Woods turned professional and timidly proclaimed, "I guess, hello, world," through his 14 major championship titles and near-decade-long grip on the world's No. 1 ranking: Can professional golf survive without him?
We might be about to find out.
Woods revealed on his personal Web site Friday that he is taking an indefinite leave from competition amid a scandal that has brought multiple infidelities to light, announcing, "I need to focus my attention on being a better husband, father, and person."
Jeff Gross/Getty Images On Friday night, Tiger Woods posted on his Web site that he would take an indefinite leave from professional golf to sort out his family life.
The word "indefinite" is, of course, cryptic at best. It could mean that Woods will return in time to be standing on the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club on April 8 in search of his fifth green jacket. Or it could very well signify the end to perhaps the greatest career we've ever seen in the game. At this point, declaring one over the other is pure speculation, as Tiger himself likely doesn't even know if he will return, let alone when.
Right move? Wrong move? From talk-show airwaves to message boards, there will be much conjecture about whether this was the proper decision, but frankly, nobody's opinion matters except that of Woods. He has deemed his current family situation dire enough to make it a priority over playing golf, which is a significant statement. It sounds simple to suggest a man should choose family over career, but for one who has worked so diligently at his craft for so many years -- and with some very tangible goals now within striking distance -- this speaks volumes about the reparations he feels are needed at home.
This won't be the first time Woods has taken an extended leave from the PGA Tour. In 2006, after the death of his father, Earl, he remained away from the game for nine weeks; upon Tiger's return, he missed the cut at the U.S. Open but won the Open Championship one month later, clinching the festivities at Royal Liverpool in a teary-eyed bout with emotions we've never witnessed publicly before or since from him. And last year, after winning the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in a sudden-death playoff while competing on a torn ACL and multiple leg fractures, he underwent reconstructive surgery and was sidelined for eight months.
In each instance, the game soldiered on, those would-be Woods victories divvied up between other top players. The level of competition didn't suffer as much as the events themselves, though, as his absence created a general lack of buzz throughout the masses.
Woods might not be bigger than the sport created in Scottish fields many centuries ago, but he is the biggest thing going right now -- in any sport -- and any tournament without his name attached to the entry list will fail to pique the interest of many casual fans. In a climate of economic turmoil -- and with many of the PGA Tour's own title sponsorship contracts expiring at the end of the 2010 season -- Woods' importance to the game cannot be overstated, his presence more necessity than luxury.
If there is a silver lining to Woods' current situation and ensuing decision, it's that when he returns to professional golf -- if he returns -- the 71-time PGA Tour champion will be able to glean help from those aforementioned absences, using the knowledge that he has returned to golf successfully in the past as motivation.
"I expect whenever he comes back, he'll be fully prepared and ready to play." said Steve Stricker, who partnered with Woods in four matches at the Presidents Cup in October. "This is only speculation, but maybe that's why he's going to take some time, so he can get things right. Hopefully he is going to come back. We don't know. But to play this game, you need 100 percent focus in playing. It would be pretty hard to have that focus with all that is going on."
If Woods weren't already among the world's most famous humans for his on-course exploits, he is now for what he has deemed his off-course "transgressions." He has not spoken publicly since a single-car accident early on the morning of Nov. 27, which coincided with news of his marital infidelities. He has released five statements so far via his Web site but has left a multitude of questions unanswered.
This latest decision to take an indefinite leave from golf will only increase the scrutiny when he does return. The first public interview, the first golf shot, the first major championship -- each will be viewed under a microscope that even the most popular golfer has never seen, the eyes of the world fixated on his every word and movement. Until then, he will retreat further into privacy in an attempt to produce what he called a "safe haven we will need for personal healing."
In the 13 years since he offered that famous hello, Woods has triumphed under many difficult circumstances, but none were as delicate or debilitating as his current situation. Whether he is now saying goodbye or just "See you later," one thing is clear: The world of professional golf -- much like the world around Tiger Woods -- won't be the same for an awfully long time.
Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.