Life of the Tiger: What a difference a year makes

Woods is in Melbourne, where the cracks began 12 months ago. And not everyone is happy to see him
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The Independent Online

Tiger Woods may have been teeing off on a different course in Melbourne last night but he would not be human if the memories of last year's Australian Masters did not come flooding back. And if 12 months of torrid revelation have proven anything, it is that this once untainted icon is most definitely human.

It was during this tournament 12 months ago when the net began to close in on his private life and it was at this tournament 12 months ago where he won his last title. Of course, the world and his mistresses now know the two events were incontrovertibly connected. That week an attractive Manhattan nightclub manager had been tracked by the National Enquirer all the way from the US to the same Australian penthouse as Woods and a fortnight later the recriminations of an impending exposé led to an early-hour crash outside his Florida home.

Much will be made of the 27 November "fire hydrant" anniversary, but it is unarguable that the dominoes began to fall in the Crown Casino Hotel.

Which makes Woods' reappearance Down Under that bit more fascinating to the outside audience than it was in 2009, particularly as he has chosen, somewhat brazenly, to stay at the same establishment. Then he was the globe's most famous sportsperson returning to Australia for the first time in a decade and the fans rushed in record numbers to get a glimpse. His fame is even more widespread now, but, interestingly, this time around he has been forced to share space on the billboards as the organisers have frantically tried to sell the remaining tickets.

Credit to the Australian public who have not bought into the "freak" show mentality shown on certain PGA Tour stops. Has their comparative indifference to Woods been inspired by ethics, sport or familiarity? It is a question impossible to answer, although it is undoubtedly the case that the IMG promoters of the tournament – who just happen to be Woods' management company – have not sought to flog his notoriety. Things have changed for Woods – his world ranking (No 2), his marital status (single) and his yearly pay packet (about $40m lighter). But at least two things remain the same. Woods still charges $3m to play in regular events outside his own country. And Woods is still desperate to win.

As ever with the new Tiger, the off-course requires analysis before the on-course. His return to the revered Melbourne sandbelt has been marred by controversy as opposition MPs have harangued the Victoria State Government for paying half – $1.5m – of the appearance fee. The argument of the ruling Labour Party is simple. Last year the Woods investment reaped more than $34m as he enticed more than 100,000 through the turnstiles and many international visitors to the area. The argument from the opposing coalition is also simple. That was last year; there is no guarantee of such interest and finance with this fallen hero. "Victorian families are desperately short of hospital beds, police and trains," said a spokesman for the opposition leader, Ted Baillieu, who it should be noted is preparing for an election. "And taxpayers' money should be spent on these urgent needs rather than appearance fees for golfers."

Except Woods is not just asked to play golf for his fee; he must also sing for his caviar supper. As part of the contractual agreements he was required to attend Tuesday's gala dinner – held at yes, the Crown Casino – and feature in a Q&A session with the Australian cricketer Shane Warne and the British television presenter Mark Nicholas. Alas, Woods couldn't use the same excuse to leave early as he did last year. "I need a good night's sleep," he had said. With Ms Rachel Uchitel's whereabouts that week now public knowledge, he wouldn't have dared.

While any would-be hecklers at the Victoria Golf Club have been warned that it will be two wisecracks and out, those sharing the stage with Woods were under no such limitations. At one point, Nicholas referred to Woods as "sharing the same nocturnal habits" as Warne. The latter responded this was the first time he had ever met Woods – "but I've heard a lot about him". Added Warne: "I think we have a lot in common... we both love golf."

For his part – if not his fee – Woods sat there and laughed. Inevitably, he was not in such a compliant mood the next day, when, during the official tournament press conference, journalists quizzed him about what it meant to be coming back to a city which now holds such resonance in his story. "I think I'm just here to defend the title," he replied, with a bat flat enough to thwart the ablest of spinners. "I'm here to play a great golf course and play against a great field. And that's how I'm looking at it."

In fairness, there is plenty to focus his sporting mind. It would be incredible to think of Woods as not being the defending champion somewhere on the planet, but should he come up short on Sunday, just as he has 13 times since this event last year, for the first time since turning pro 14 years ago, he will not have won in a whole year. "Hopefully, that doesn't happen," said the 34-year-old. "I'm going to go out there and try to make sure I give myself every opportunity to win. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't. That doesn't change my commitment to getting better and working on my game."

He is certain all that range-time is paying off and a top-10 performance at the WGC-HSBC in Shanghai last week – just the third of his campaign – sent Woods out in the first round talking confidently; perhaps more confidently than he has so far in 2010. "I think I've got a pretty good chance of winning this event if I play the way I know I can play," he said.

Yet it won't be achieved the way he played when he was last in the Garden State – it can't be, he has changed too much. The golfing narrative of the downfall saw Woods become so distraught with his form that, after being dumped by long-time coach Hank Haney, he turned to a young swing guru called Sean Foley. It would not be a tweaking process as the method preached by Foley required a complete overhaul. Woods admitted for the first time yesterday that here was one radical lifestyle alteration he was not so keen to make.

"I was definitely waffling," he said. "At the [US] PGA Championship [in August], every night I was trying to figure out, 'Should I actually do this or not?' Because I know [how big] an undertaking it is. I know how much effort it takes, how many swings you have to make in the mirror, how many things you have to think about, the adjustments that it takes. Do I really want to do that again?"

He did and is and a victory this week would at least go part of the way to vindicating that decision. But it would be bigger than that. This time last year he made negative headlines for throwing a driver over the heads of the fans in a pique of anger, but won his seventh title of the year anyway. Life was so simple then. Winning solved everything. Now it would serve as a neat and apt way to close the most incredible and damaging chapter of his career.