It's a bit extreme to say that golf entered the Dark Ages when Tiger Woods limped off after his incredible victory in the 2008 U.S. Open, but it's not totally inaccurate. When Woods is playing, golf has a place among the major sports in the United States that it can't maintain when he's on the sidelines.
Padraig Harrington's consecutive major wins were noticed, but, because Woods wasn't in the field, they weren't celebrated with any overwhelming passion. If Woods had been playing, Harrington would have been credited with beating him, even if Woods didn't play well, and the rest of the PGA needs that shine to grab attention on the sports pages.
That's why a new Nike commercial, while funny, isn't quite accurate. It shows golfers like Tremor Immelman and Anthony Kim basking in the spotlight as they pile up success in Woods' absence until Tiger walks into a locker room to end the party.
The problem is that the party's just starting for those guys. With Woods back, more eyes will be watching tournaments when Kim plays well and that will benefit him the way it helped guys like Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson grow in stature as would-be Woods killers. Woods has to slow down at some point, that's just a guess since he's never shown a sign of it, and whoever emerges as the world's best player will reap massive benefits as the man who slayed the king.
Look at what's happened to Rafael Nadal in tennis. For years he was a clay court specialist who couldn't beat Roger Federer on other surfaces. Now, with two straight wins at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, he's ascended to the throne and become the man to beat in tennis. Imagine if Nadal won those titles, but Federer didn't play because of injury? The titles would still be impressive accomplishments, but they wouldn't be regarded nearly the same way because he didn't beat the man to become the man.
The same holds for golf, despite the completely different nature of the sport. Woods' tide lifts all boats, both in financial renumeration and amount of attention. Just ask Rocco Mediate, who went from anonymous tour member to media darling because he lost to Tiger at Torrey Pines. It might mean fewer wins in the short term, but any player who doesn't realize that this is better for him isn't paying attention.