Woods' accident leaves many questions

We all know how important he is to the game of golf, how his mere presence at a tournament turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, how his pursuit of records once thought unreachable is compelling even to those who couldn't care less about birdies and bogeys.

Perhaps the value of such greatness is really understood only by accident.

Certainly Friday's heart-stopping news reports that Tiger Woods was seriously injured in a car crash sent the mind racing.

Because that is the sort of thing, probably more than any other factor in the game, that could derail what many seem to take for granted -- that Woods will one day catch and surpass the major championship record of Jack Nicklaus.

Of course, none of that matters in the bigger picture of life, and for a time Friday afternoon after news reports first surfaced that Woods had been "seriously" injured, golf was of little concern.

It was only later that Woods' spokesman calmed a lot of nervous souls by saying that the world's No. 1 golfer had been released from the hospital and was in "good condition."

Many questions remain unanswered right now, some that certainly have heightened the awareness of conspiracy theorists: the time of the accident; the varying reports of damage to Woods' vehicle; his wife, Elin, smashing a window to get him out of a car in which the airbags did not deploy.

And all of it occurred within a few days of a tawdry National Enquirer report that claimed Woods was having an affair with a New York woman -- who vehemently denied the accusations to the Associated Press.

So far, in a pro career that dates to 1996, the only hint of scandal involving Woods usually has centered around his propensity to use profanity on the golf course.

Whether this will turn into anything more is unclear, but the entire scenario is but another example of what a big deal Woods is in the game, and how much it is altered if he is not around.

How many tournament directors were holding their breath Friday? What about PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem? Television executives? Fellow players?

Woods is the reason the game gets so much attention, why big purses make even mediocre players rich, why golf is more popular than ever among young people. Woods, 33, made golf cool more than a decade ago when he won the Masters in record-setting fashion, and he continues to do so through his pursuit of the game's most hallowed records.

And yet, so much is expected of Woods that there were some who actually suggested that 2009 was a disappointing season because he did not win a major championship.

All he did was win six times on the PGA Tour (and seven times worldwide), finish in the top 10 in 14 of 17 tournaments, finish in the top 6 in three majors, post the lowest scoring average, and earn more than $10 million to lead the PGA Tour money list. Oh, and he won the FedEx Cup, too, plus a $10 million bonus.

That came after what should have been the first clue that nothing is guaranteed.

Why was it assumed that Woods would come back better than ever after his major knee surgery last summer? It was the fourth time he had to have surgery on his troublesome left knee, and this time his ACL was replaced.

Sure, Woods doesn't have to hit anyone or make sudden starts and stops like a football player, but ask any golfer how important the left knee is in the golf swing and you will know just how impressive the 2009 season has been for Woods.

He finished the year with 71 PGA Tour titles, just two behind the second-place Nicklaus and only 11 behind the all-time leader, Sam Snead. Tiger's 14 major titles is four behind the Golden Bear's record of 18.

For years, many have assumed he would get there, smashing all of these marks.

And yet, a smashed car is what makes us realize that nothing is guaranteed.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.