Foil for Tiger more important than ever

Golf got a glimpse it did not want to see, a brief view into the future. Tiger Woods left the game for nearly nine months and the general reaction was you might as well take down the flagsticks and cover up the holes. No point in even growing grass, really.

That is a harsh, and rather unfair, view of professional golf since June 16, when the world's No. 1 golfer last played, doing so in riveting fashion by defeating Rocco Mediate in a playoff to win the U.S. Open.

Since then, regardless of the veracity, the perception exists that golf needs Tiger Woods back more than any sport has ever needed it's main attraction to return. Ratings plummeted in his absence and a global economic meltdown has not been particularly kind to the game, either.

Woods' comeback from knee surgery at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship is as welcome to PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem as the fans who will watch him, the media who will cover him, the players who will in most instances be defeated by him. Everyone understands the importance, even if Woods downplays it.

"The only thing I can control is what I do on the golf course,'' Woods said. "As far as off the golf course ... those are things that I feel are out of my hands. All I can do is really control what I do on the golf course.''

And if he continues to do what he has been doing for the past 13 years, all will be fine.

Winning in the manner in which Woods has triumphed has brought him fabulous wealth and fame beyond golf. He is one of the most recognized people in the world, and those who know nothing about golf are drawn to him. It's interesting that it was Woods inviting President Obama to a round of golf at the pre-inauguration ceremonies, and not vice versa.

That prominence, of course, led to a belief that golf would grow to unanticipated heights because those tuning in or showing up would become hooked on the game and its other characters. When Tiger took time off, they would still check things out.

Hasn't happened. Certainly not to the level envisioned. Tournaments have been tiered into those with and without Tiger. Television ratings drop roughly in half when he doesn't play. A victory is not considered the same if Tiger is not in the field. The list goes on and on.

And that doesn't bode well for a future without him, which will obviously come some day and last longer than nine months.

But remember that golf did okay before Woods came along. And that the same type of negativity pervaded as players such as Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus aged.

Consider the time between Nicklaus' last major title at the 1986 Masters and Woods' first at the 1997 Masters. There were 43 major championships played in that period, and six different players won at least two. It was far from golf's golden era, but it was hardly the doom and gloom projected without a Golden Bear adding to his records.

Greg Norman was undoubtedly a superstar, but he received more attention for the majors he didn't win than the two he did. Nick Faldo won all six of his majors in that period and Nick Price won three. John Daly, Curtis Strange and Payne Stewart each won two. It was pretty good stuff.

In the 48 majors since, Woods has been so dominant that he has overshadowed some of the greatness of others. In that period, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Padraig Harrington each won three majors, Mark O'Meara, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen claimed two.

During his recent absence, Harrington stepped up to win back-to-back majors -- a Woods-like feat if there ever was one -- the U.S. Ryder Cup team managed a victory without him and young players such as Anthony Kim, Camilo Villegas and Rory McIllroy have emerged as the game's future.

And yet, Woods remains the unquestioned star, the player who carries the weight of golf on his powerful shoulders.

There remains a lament that nobody has been able to step up and challenge Woods. Perhaps that is why Mediate was heaped with such huge praise last June, because he actually didn't back down and made the U.S. Open one of the most memorable majors of all time. What Mediate did was force Woods to be great, and he delivered, bad knee and all.

As much as the game needs him back now, pursuing Nicklaus' major championship record of 18 and Sam Snead's PGA Tour mark of 82 victories, golf could also use a good foil.

Just as Nicklaus had Tom Watson and Lee Trevino to deny him even more majors, such an adversary might be a good thing for the game, if not for Woods. It will add more intrigue over the next several years as Woods pursues further greatness. And might even give us some folks to talk about when he decides to walk away.

For now, however, it is good that he is walking at all -- without a limp -- and about to embark on the next phase of his career.

Because golf surely does need him back.

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