The buildup for the Players Championship suffered a blow last week. It wasn't Tiger Woods hitting the ball hither and yon and missing the cut at Quail Hollow. It was Bubba Watson, the thrill-a-minute champion of the Masters, announcing he would skip the Players to spend time with his wife and adopted infant son.

Watson received much congratulations from the national media for the fine perspective he was putting on life -- wanting to bond with the little tyke rather than mix it up with what often has been the best field of the golf season.

Put me in the group that would have been much more interested in viewing Watson take on the wonderful acreage at TPC Sawgrass this week than in tracking the immature rants of the 36-year-old Woods through another misadventure with his latest new swing.

There's no entity more devoted to giving the public what it wants than ESPN -- even its hour upon hour of nonstop fawning from Jon Gruden and other NFL sycophants.

Clearly, the ESPN research says Tiger remains all that golf has to offer to the general public, otherwise the crawl and "SportsCenter'' segments would have opened with Nick Watney shooting a 64 at Quail Hollow to take the 36-hole lead at 12 under, rather than Woods missing the cut.

After the scandal and the gawd-awful play and the perpetual pouting of a now 36-year-old man, is "How did Tiger do?'' the only question the general public has to offer when it sees a golf item on a sports report?

If you're in that category, golf doesn't need you. A couple of points in the TV ratings aren't worth pandering to the lowest common denominator of golf viewers -- the people not moved by the drama of the competition but merely the presence on the leader board of a guy with a great name and a magnificent past.

Any time he shoots a 67 you hear the same question, from the panels on ESPN and the Golf Channel, or from non-golf fans making small talk: "Is Tiger back?''

This is without a definition of what constitutes being back.

He can win again. He showed that at the end of March by winning Arnold Palmer's tournament at Bay Hill, an event that he's won about the same number of times that he took a few bucks off former buddy Mark O'Meara in backyard matches in Windermere, Fla.

Can he dominate again? No chance. He turns 37 on New Year's Eve and hasn't had the same marvelous move to the golf ball since his fallout with swing coach Butch Harmon a decade ago.

He wound up with Hank Haney, and there was a stiff quality to that swing that even we technical dunces couldn't help but notice. So, how was it that Woods managed to win at a higher percentage with Haney than with Harmon?

Here's my answer: Many years ago, I asked an old-time batting coach how it was possible for Dave Winfield to be such an outstanding hitter with that big hitch at the start of his swing?

"Because that's how good he is,'' the coach said.

Tiger Woods was in a golfer's prime when he worked with Haney -- late 20s, early 30s -- and that's how he good he was. But like any game, as you get older, the flaws are harder to overcome physically, and the doubts creep in, and that's when you need a swing built for the long haul.

Johnny Miller, the greatest commentator that golf has ever known, has said: "I really believe Tiger needs to, every night, watch the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble and just copy that swing. ... That was the best golf anybody has ever played in the history of golf.''

I covered that Open. It was the best athletic performance I've ever witnessed. Pebble Beach was as tough as a course can get. Tiger was 12 under; that was 15 shots clear of runners-up Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez.

It also was a dozen years ago. I've moved on.

I'll be watching the Players this week, and the absence of Bubba will be a much larger void than it would be to see Tiger go home early again.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. •