Pining for Tiger at Pinehurst

Tiger Woods will be sorely missed at Pinehurst. Sure, the U.S. Open will go on as it has since 1895, but without the game's biggest star.

Tiger's back injury and his absence from the first two major championships have been cause for a kind of collective anxiety within the industry about his future and the future of the game without him.

In April at the Masters, Bubba Watson and Jordan Spieth provided a good show early in their final round, but the tournament had its lowest weekend rating since 1993. "Tiger changed the landscape of golf and how people viewed it," said Hunter Mahan, a five-time PGA Tour winner. "He's an important part of this game and you feel it when you're out there. He's a force.

"At Augusta, it looked different, felt different from when he is there. I just didn't see as many fans."

Since turning pro in 1996, Tiger has represented at once the standard of playing excellence, a symbol of hope for racial progress in the game and the main engine for growth in the golf industry.

For close to 20 years, there have been five fast-moving trains running in the game: a fluctuating global economy; Tiger's unrivaled dominance as a player; the most profound innovations in ball and club technology in the history of the sport; a concerted push among the leading golf bodies, particularly in the U.S., to grow the game, with an extensive focus on minorities, youth and women; and the globalization of the game, which has brought Asia and the Middle East to the fore of the golf industry.

Now we're faced with an uncertain economy, course closures that far exceed the number of new clubs opening, decreases in rounds played, and the inevitable departure of Tiger Woods as the dominant force in championship golf.

What are we waiting for? A stronger economy? More players? The next coming of Tiger Woods? What is going to save the game?

Is the economy the main problem? Every aspect of the game will certainly benefit from a more robust economy. "If you look long term," said Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA, "you see ups and downs in the game that go right along with the economy. You think things are tough right now, go back to the Great Depression, when you had hundreds of golf courses closing.

"The economy is not good and participation is down, but the USGA doesn't agree with this mindset that the game is broken."

The bigger issue for Davis and Pete Bevacqua, CEO of the PGA of America, is how well the game attracts women, juniors and minorities. "I will be judged in this job in a major way by how we make the game more diverse," Bevacqua told me.

Don Wallace, who oversees on-site operations for PGA Tour events, started with the tour in 1990 and is one of the most senior level African-Americans in golf. "The game is in lockstep with our economy," he said. "We need to all be looking for a better economy and make what we do here works financially and that grows every sector.

"The diversity variable is not unlike anything else, but I think the conditions need to be right for it to evolve. If we have growth generally then I think things can change. The pie isn't big as it used to be."

Wallace understands better than most the gargantuan role that Tiger has played in the game, particularly at the professional level, but he is cautious about placing too much importance on the second coming of the future Hall of Famer. "I don't think the next Tiger is important to grow or save the game," he said. "I don't think we should focus on who that kid is, but really on creating an environment in the sport that would allow that kid to develop."

When Michael Jordan retired for the last time in 2003, there was concern about who would fill his outsized place in the NBA. While LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, to name a few, have done a fine job filling the void, Jordan's legacy still looms over the sport.

Mahan believes that Tiger will retain a similar hold over golf, much like the way Jack Nicklaus has remained in the limelight through Tiger's efforts to supplant him as the king of Grand Slam victories. "Tiger is going to leave the game in a much better place for sure," Mahan said. "And he will always be talked about like Jordan is in basketball. When the NBA Finals come on, they compare whoever is playing to Jordan. He's always around. And I think it will be the same way with Tiger."

Almost from the beginning of Tiger-mania in the late 1990s, there has been much discussion about solutions to bring about the next Tiger. Junior programs across the country set out to identify future black PGA Tour players. There was supposed to be a so-called Tiger effect that would lead to dozens of black PGA Tour pros. There was the Shoal Creek controversy in 1990 that ignited greater attention to the lack of minorities in the game. The fallout from the Birmingham club's refusal to accept black members ensured that clubs wanting to host PGA Tour events didn't maintain discriminatory membership practices.

But it was with the emergence of Tiger in the late '90s that the sport took real strides to make the game more inclusive. Craig Bowen led Titleist's efforts to attract minorities to the game during those years. "Wally Uihlein (the CEO of the Acushnet Company) was quite brilliant in his timing at looking at minority golf," Bowen said. "My job at Titleist was to get the brand on as many African-American golfers, celebrities, junior and college programs as I could, because he knew Tiger was coming."

In 2014, the next Tiger is also presented as Spieth or Rory McIlroy, great young players with the potential to lead the game in the post-Tiger and Phil Mickelson era. The First Tee, an international youth and golf development organization, has been at the forefront of trying to grow the game. It has helped to develop some good young minority players, such as Harold Varner III, who now plays on the Web.com Tour. But the organization has struggled to act as a bridge for minorities to the tour and the golf industry.

Sam Witherby, the executive director of The First Tee in Richmond, Indiana, wants to see greater participation of black youth in his program. In Richmond, Witherby works closely with Bo Van Pelt, a PGA Tour veteran and Richmond native, and his father, Bob Van Pelt. "Even if you go door-knocking, how do you make that kid come to your program if there is no interests there?" Witherby said. "We need some other minorities like Tiger to come along that would generate some interests, but I don't know how that's going to happen. We are able to get some in the program early on, but by their teenager years, they are gone."

In response to some of the malaise around the Tiger-less Masters, an ESPN.com reader suggested that the game should stop trying so hard to reach minorities and occasional golfers and focus on its core constituency of serious players, who are mostly white and elite. This is backward thinking. Golf is better for being diverse. But what are we left with if Tiger's fans exit with him? It's certainly a viable tour, but whiter and more exclusive. The game doesn't depend on Tiger for its survival, but he's been instrumental in its growth and reach across race, economic and class lines.

The U.S. Open at Pinehurst would be stronger with him in the field, but it still will be a great championship. The only anxiety about the game in Pinehurst should come from the players trying to get up and down around Donald Ross' turtleback greens.