John McGrath

John McGrath: Tiger’s return welcome: US Open at Chambers Bay needs him

Tiger Woods returns to competitive golf this week, a prospect that has the rest of the PGA Tour giddy enough to perform the back flips he can’t.

“I’m so pumped,” Keegan Bradley told the Golf Channel. “It’s great news for golf and great news for the Tour. A no-Tiger Tour is not the same.”

Or as Bubba Watson put it Tuesday, speaking for tens of millions of other Americans: “Normally I don’t watch golf, but I’ll watch when Tiger is playing.”

Watson’s acknowledgement that he’s more intrigued by Tiger Woods than by the 123 other golfers with Tour cards was underscored by television ratings for the 2014 U.S. Open. The final round registered a 3.3, a 46 percent decline from last year.

It didn’t help that Germany’s Martin Kaymer dominated the weekend with a pleasant smile belying his cold-blooded efficiency. But if Woods’ name had appeared on the Sunday leaderboard — or if he’d merely shown up for the final round, on his way to a 25th-place tie — the U.S. Open isn’t recalled as the Golf Tournament Nobody Watched Besides Martin Kaymer’s Relatives.

Absent from the Tour since undergoing back surgery in March, Woods this season has earned $86,919, pocket change for somebody who used to command $3-million appearance fees in Dubai. And though he’s won two of the past five Quicken Loans Open tournaments, he probably won’t contend in an event his foundation helps sponsor.

Woods, 39, likened his post-surgical athletic status to that of Michael Jordan, who compensated for his aging legs by reinventing himself as an outside shooter.

“Just like M.J., I’ve got a fade-away now,” Woods told reporters at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. “I’ve had to rely on different parts of my game and strategy and understand how course management skills are involved.

“I’m out there pumping 8-irons 135 yards,” he said, “and that’s all I have.”

But if all Woods has these days is a short game, the winner of 14 major championships still brings something to the sport that his colleagues can’t.

With Woods gone and Phil Mickelson missing — Lefty hasn’t finished among the Top 10 in a single event — the 2013-14 PGA season has produced nine first-time winners. Regeneration is necessary, to be sure, but on a list of first-time champions that includes Matt Every, Matt Jones and Brendan Todd, the only names that ring a bell are Kevin Stadler (son of Craig “The Walrus” Stadler) and Seung-Yol Noh, whose Korean name is pronounced “Soon You’ll Know” and is rich with the possible variations of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?” skit.

Which brings me back to Tiger Woods. Regardless of the importance of the tournament — it can be as relatively inconsequential as, say, the Quicken Loans Open — fans will tune in, and they will stay tuned.

Given the modest expectations accompanying Woods’ comeback, he’ll consider two pain-free rounds before the cut a success. And should he survive the cut, he’ll consider four pain-free rounds even more of a success.

The longer-range ambition for Woods is to resemble a viable contender at Royal Liverpool, site of the 2014 British Open, in July.

Because it’s been six years since his last major championship (the 2008 U.S. Open) and almost 11 months since his last victory (the WGC Bridgestone Invitational), it’s easy to forget Woods was the PGA Tour’s 2013 Player of the Year.

Knee problems and back issues have taken an inevitable toll, and we can be reasonably certain in saying the greatest days of the world’s greatest golfer are behind him. But golf needs Woods, the PGA Tour needs Woods and, more specifically, the organizers of the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay need Woods.

The public links-style course in University Place will occupy a prominent place on the international sports stage next June. Plans are in place for Pierce County to put on a first-class tournament executed with a minimum of logistical headaches regarding transportation, lodging and spectator comfort, and the weather figures to cooperate.

A Pacific Northwest drizzle on a cool summer day is always preferable to the Midwestern and Eastern Seaboard alternative: 90 degrees and unbearable humidity, with a thunderstorm rolling in.

And yet, if Tiger Woods isn’t able to compete and somebody like Martin Kaymer coasts through the final round without a challenge, the TV ratings will suffer, and the Chambers Bay U.S. Open will be judged by casual fans as just another major that failed to pique their interest.

On the other hand, think of the spectacle that awaits, in our own backyard, if Tiger Woods arrives at Chambers Bay on Father’s Day with a one-shot lead.

It’s goofy that one golfer can hold so much sway over a sport, but then again, it was goofy that one golfer could win 10 major tournaments before he was old enough to rent a car.

Stay well, Tiger. You are needed. You are needed more than ever.