THE panic that sets into the world of golf when Tiger Woods goes AWOL indicates a sport that has lost all confidence in its worldwide appeal.

When the 14-time major winner announced he would not be competing at this year’s Masters, which gets underway on Thursday, the sport seemed to spin off its axis.

All the talk in the run up to the championships has not been who is going to win, but how the absence of Woods will affect it.

You would imagine the golfing world would have faced up to the prospect of life without Tiger following his enforced absence in 2011, but it seems not.

His latest lay-off – due to back surgery rather than marital implosion – could be a sign of things to come for the 38-year-old as two decades of domination catch up with him.

Rory McIlroy felt it necessary to assure the expectant public on Thursday that he plans to fill the void left by Tiger – but is that really what the sport needs?

When these sporting superstars emerge, the aura that goes with them invariably puts their rivals in the shade. All eyes are on them and no-one else seems to matter.

But while this level of superstardom can attract a worldwide audience, the sports in question almost always suffer, rather than prosper, as a result.

What a sport really needs to thrive is competition and for this you need at least two, but preferably three or four top quality competitors fighting it out on a regular basis.

Without that, when a sport becomes too heavily focused on one supremely-talented individual, it becomes rudderless when they are no longer competing.

We saw that with tennnis when Pete Sampras’s days of Centre Court domination came to a sudden end.

Roger Federer was on his way up at that point and while it took the legendary Swiss player a while to step into Pete’s shoes, the tennis world has not fallen into a state of flux as his career now winds down.

The reason being is that the sport currently has three genuine challengers to Federer’s crown in Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.

The fact they are regularly challenging for honours has captured the sporting public’s imagination to the point where, if one of them happens to be injured, it isn’t seen as a major crisis by tournament organisers.

Golf hasn’t really had that since Woods’ heyday.

The fact Tiger has not actually won the Masters since 2005 seems to have been lost in the furore – he is still the biggest story.

And as much as McIlroy would like to assume that mantle, what the sport needs now is for a golden era of competition rather than another face to fill the void.