Golf

Golf can thrive, even without Tiger

On the red-and-white Boo-grass of Valhalla over the last weekend, the United States didn't just prove it could reclaim the Ryder Cup from its across-the-pond rivals.

It also proved that golf can indeed survive, dare we say thrive, without that sport's dominant force.

That isn't to say that golf is better without Tiger Woods, just that the Ryder Cup, and the game itself, got better and more interesting without him.

In fact, whenever Woods' knee is strong enough to allow the "greatest golfer on the planet," as he was called so many times in his Valhalla absence, to parachute back onto the PGA Tour, he is likely to find his gallery just a wee bit thinner.

After all, there are now others with a following.

They'll be tracking Anthony Kim, the baby-faced, energetic 23-year-old with amazing skills and spunk, who sent a charge through playing partner Phil Mickelson on Friday and Saturday. He then took the fight right to Sergio Garcia on Sunday to such a degree that the Spaniard, so often a Ryder Cup hero, wilted under the heat.

They'll be following Hunter Mahan, the talented 26-year-old Texan, whose deft shot-making helped the Americans stare down the Euros on Friday and Saturday, then provided a key half-point as the Americans began their early Sunday surge.

They'll surely be following the 35-year-old going on 15, Boo Weekley, the game's new cult figure, who not only provided some terrific golf but also the right dash of goofiness for a team that, in past Cups, was accused of trying too hard.

(After saying Saturday he was like that greyhound dog chasing that rabbit, Weekley was asked Sunday, now that the greyhound had caught the rabbit, what did it taste like? Without hesitation, Weekley answered, "Chicken.")

There might even be some following Ian Poulter, the 31-year-old European who has a residence in Orlando and who was possibly the best individual player of the entire Cup, personally contributing to four of the losing side's eight wins.

And there will be plenty following Kentucky's own J.B. Holmes, the 26-year-old Campbellsville native and former UK star who affirmed Paul Azinger's captain's pick with his long drives — "preposterously long," cried the European press — and some cutting shots around the green.

"It was pretty much perfect," said Holmes on Sunday night. "You couldn't have drawn it up any better."

Nor could you have drawn up his introduction to the national stage any better. Holmes has already made a name on tour for his length and improving short game. But to the casual fan, he's one of a host of faceless players puttering around the course in Tiger's gargantuan shadow.

Not that there would be any real reason to change their ways. After all, even with Tiger on the sidelines, Holmes led the PGA at Oakland Hills after two rounds, slipped to second after Saturday, then blew up to an 81 on Sunday to finish 29th.

Kim did win the Wachovia and the AT&T National this year but has never played in the Masters and has one top-10 finish in the majors.

Mahan won the 2007 Travelers and tied for 18th in this year's U.S. Open, but missed the cut at the PGA. Weekley, who has twice won the Verizon at Hilton Head, didn't finish better than 20th in any of this year's majors.

Poulter claimed second at the British Open this year, but previously was better known for his over-the-top trousers and a self-confidence so immense he boldly predicted that if he reached his full potential, "It would be just me and Tiger," at the top of the golf world.

Don't worry, even an absent Tiger, busy shooting Azinger text messages, is still at the top of the sport. But he is no longer the sole focus. Thanks to the Ryder Cup, there are other recognizable names out there now, with games well-worth following.

"These rookies," said Mickelson, "they invigorated this team."

And the sport.

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