Looking to fill the void left by Tiger

The sudden roar from three holes away was enough to make Rory McIlroy turn his head.

The cheer was for a birdie, no doubt. And it was loud enough so thousands of people had to be watching. McIlroy quickly deduced, along with everyone else behind the third green at Doral, that such a reaction could be for only one player.

"Must have been Ernie," he said with a wink and a grin.

The freckled-face kid from Northern Ireland showed a sharp sense of humor, for he knew that Ernie Els was playing that day with Tiger Woods. Then came another cheer, this more like an aftershock, and McIlroy shook his head and continued walking to the tee.

"Definitely, Ernie," McIlroy said with a broad smile, aware he was fooling no one.

There are cheers for birdies, and there are cheers for Woods, and there is a difference.

Golf is louder when Woods plays, whether in Miami or Melbourne, San Diego or Shanghai. It is likely to be a little more quiet now that he is on an "indefinite leave" to try to save his marriage from a sex scandal that has put golf on the front pages - in December, no less.

No one knows when he will return to the PGA Tour, and that might include Woods.

This is not the first time golf has been missing its star attraction. Woods was gone eight months after winning the 2008 U.S. Open to recover from knee surgery. He missed the two months leading up to that U.S. Open with a lesser knee surgery. And he missed two months in 2006 while coping with the death of his father.

"No one can take the place of Tiger Woods," Stewart Cink said. "The rest of us are going to have to put on a better show."

The uncertainty of his return - not only the timing, but possible fallout from his behavior - leaves golf in more dire need to find someone who can fill the void.

"There's plenty of global superstars on the way up to replace him," said Graeme McDowell, who replaced Woods at his Chevron World Challenge two weeks ago and finished second. "But they're just not quite ready to replace him yet. We need him to hang out for another four or five years."

Even that might not be enough time.

Jack Nicklaus once ran down a list of players most likely to challenge Woods, and once he got beyond the usual suspects, Nicklaus feigned a look over his shoulder and said, "It could be some kid out there who hasn't even started playing yet."

Nicklaus said that 10 years ago. Not much has changed.

The second-biggest draw in golf might be Phil Mickelson, the chief foil for Woods through the years.

Mickelson already is wildly popular, not only for his willingness to take on risks inside the ropes, but for spending hours signing autographs. The public embraced him even more upon learning his wife, Amy, had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

In the months before Woods became engulfed in the scandal, the buzz about 2010 was the prospect of Woods and Mickelson colliding at the top of their games.

"Given the finish he had to the year, if Phil comes out strong, then he's the replacement," said Roger Maltbie, a former PGA Tour winner and now an analyst for NBC Sports.

The search is for someone younger, however, and golf rarely has had this many fresh faces.

McIlroy became only the second player - Sergio Garcia was the other - to crack the top 10 in the world ranking before turning 21. With his mop of brown hair, playful swagger and raw skill, McIlroy backed up the early hype when he won in Dubai, tied for third in the PGA Championship and nearly won the European Tour money title.

"If he starts off well, the focus is going to be about Rory again," said his manager, Chubby Chandler. "I didn't realize this at the time, but one reason for the tremendous hype about Rory was that Tiger wasn't around that much."

The same could be said of 24-year-old Anthony Kim, another amazing talent who first came to prominence when Woods wasn't playing. He won last year at Quail Hollow and Congressional, and had a starring role at the Ryder Cup.

Kim appeals to the hip-hop generation as a street-smart kid who grew up in Los Angeles and loves to talk smack. On the practice range one evening at Congressional, Kim had his iPod blaring as he hit balls with his small entourage.

"Yo, get you some of that," Kim said to one of his friends after one drive.

But as another year starts without Woods, Kim is among the promising young stars who are coming off disappointing seasons. He failed to win last year, along with Camilo Villegas and Sergio Garcia.

Some attention is shifting to Rickie Fowler, who lost in a PGA Tour playoff and made it through Q-school before his 21st birthday. Then again, golf is loaded with young players who have a great week, even a great month. What set Woods apart, among other things, is that he had a great 13 years.

It's possible the next great player can emerge from this collection of youth, a group that includes Ryo Ishikawa of Japan, who at 19 became the youngest to win the Japan Golf Tour money title; Dustin Johnson, already a two-time winner who is tall, athletic and hits it a mile; or even Adam Scott, who just turned 30 and has been linked this year to Kate Hudson and Ana Ivanovic.

"I can't imagine anyone having all the tools Tiger has, making huge putts when he needs them over and over and over again," Maltbie said. "The things he does are amazing. We just haven't see that from the kids yet."


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