Return of the Tiger

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The world No 1 tees off next week after eight months out to repair his knee. James Corrigan explains why the Tour – and his rivals – are happy to have him back

Eight months, one week, two days. For a game that has been in existence for 900 years – give or take the odd decade when certain Kings chose to ban the sport – that should not constitute a significant amount of time. So why has the period stretching back to last June already been labelled “a golfing dark age” and why will next Wednesday be greeted with a level of fervour which some religious types will feel should be reserved for the Second Coming?

Two words – “Tiger Woods”. And three more – “He is back”. When the five are put together, golf will be blessed with one of the more exciting moments in its conservative history.

Still, there are always a few hapless souls who are caused misery by the majority’s joy and yesterday it was difficult to know to whom to extend the most pity – the agents manning the ticket hotline for next week’s Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson, or Brendan Jones. While the former must think their work is cut out in trying to satisfy the demand of all those wishing to witness the comeback of the world No 1 from his knee reconstruction, that will be nothing to the task-sheet facing the unheralded Australian professional.

As Jones prepares for his first-round match at Dove Mountain, he would be advised not to check what happened the last time Woods donned competitive spikes. It is already written deep into the game’s folklore that Rocco Mediate happened to produce the best golf of his, and for that matter most other lifetimes in the US Open, but was still slain in a 19-hole play-off. And the world now knows that Woods was playing on only one good leg on that occasion.

Those glorious memories of Torrey Pines, of course, only add to the anticipation of the Tiger return and believe it, everyone but everyone within the sport is counting down the hours. That includes his rivals, which on first listening may sound surprising – what with Woods having reduced them to also-ran status on so many occasions since he turned pro in 1996 – but really should not when one considers all that he has brought to his profession. Perhaps, Phil Mickelson, the player purported to be Woods’ biggest rival (score in majors: 14-3) summed it up best.

“We need him back, we want him back,” he said. “He drives television ratings, the sponsors need him in their events and the fans turn out to see him. I never thought it was possible for a golfer to become the top athlete in the world and because of this he does so much for us on a national level and on an international level. We have all missed him.”

At this point many will claim that Padraig Harrington is the exception, what with the back-to-back majors the Irishman picked up at Birkdale and Oakland Hills following Woods’ surgery. Yet Harrington is a qualified accountant and is the first to recognise just how he and his colleagues have benefited from Woods’ presence. And how much poorer – in very real terms – they would be without him.

If any of them are either daft enough or pig-headed enough to doubt this (over to you Rory Sabbatini) then they need only pay reference to the downturn in his absence. Granted, a financial crisis has unfolded since Tiger’s joint went bust and during this crunch it has been impossible to decipher exactly what has been down to the “Woods factor”. But one stats sheet leaves no room for argument; television audiences traditionally go up during recessions. And in the US they have done. For everything but golf.

Consider that the TV ratings for last year’s Open Championship dropped by almost 15 per cent and would surely have been a lot worse had it not been for Greg Norman’s startling trip down Memory Fairway. “Surely” can be comfortably used in this respect when the figures for the final round of the USPGA Championship in Detroit are analysed. Despite Harrington and Sergio Garcia staging yet another of their dramatic ding-dongers, on that Sunday evening the ratings were 55 per cent down from 2007, when some chap called Woods had prevailed in Tulsa.

The same staggering trend went on in the regular-season events where Woods would normally have appeared; 48 per cent down for the AT&T Classic, 39 per cent down for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Inevitably, surveys were frantically conducted and, perhaps just as inevitably, these surveys came back with the same cold answer: when Tiger’s not there, the casual fan turns off. It is a simple statement, but clearly one that has golf’s mainstream standing within its parameters. It is not being too apocalyptic to suggest that the immediate future of the sport, and certainly of the American Tour, is very much tied up in Woods staging a successful comeback. Contracts that last through 2010 have protected the Tour to a certain extent, but seeing as almost half of the event sponsors are either in the auto or financial sectors, then what will happen in 2011 is all too ominous. To find new sponsors, the Tour’s sales team need positive ratings sheets at their disposal and this is where Woods comes in.

If he can return to his predominance of before, then the interest will remain and in all probability, as he zeroes in on Jack Nicklaus’s record major haul of 18, it will only heighten. The professional locker rooms will continue to be populated by multi-millionaires famous throughout the land as Tiger’s co-stars. The fairways will still be lined with gold.

The flip side is unthinkable and that is undoubtedly why so many of his peers have been so quick to talk up the likelihood of a new improved Tiger on that first tee. The whispers from the Woods camp have certainly done little to curtail the overwhelming sense of optimism. In the past few weeks his coach, Hank Haney, has declared “he looks better than ever” and he has been backed by Woods’ long-time playing buddy, Mark O’Meara, as well as Woods’ caddie, Steve Williams. Yesterday it was left to the man himself to underline the confidence.

“Long-term this is the greatest thing that could have happened, to go in there and reconstruct it,” Woods said of his knee surgery, the third in the last five years. “Right now it feels great to have stability in the leg. It’s not sliding all over the place; my bones aren’t moving. Things that I was dealing with ... well, I don’t feel that any more. It’s better than it’s been in over a decade. I’m ready to play again.”

Yet is it possible for even someone of Woods’ ability to win again at the first time of asking and so put behind him eight months of pain, frustration and recuperation? Not only all of that, but just 13 days ago his wife, Elin, gave birth to their second child, Charlie, and that would be enough of a distraction to derail the challenge of most players. Except Woods plainly is not “most players” as his friend and would-be conqueror Ernie Els acknowledged yesterday. “I’ve known Tiger for a long time, he’s amazed us with everything he has done and he will probably go on doing the same,” said the South African.

Harrington concurred, just as they all would concur. “I think he’ll come back better,” said the world No 3. “He’ll come back with a greater enthusiasm and love for the game because he’s missed it. When something is taken away from you, you want it even more. It’s hard to believe that I’m saying Tiger Woods might want to win a tournament more than he did before.”

Wishful thinking or reality? Or maybe both? Woods has made a habit of turning one into the other. Not too long now to see whether he can accomplish the unthinkable again.

So did you miss him? Reaction from the Tour

The television executive; Ron Bain, former president of CBS TV sports

“Of course we’ve missed him. It’s called the ‘Tiger factor’. When it is just another event, when he is not playing, ratings can go down 10 to 15 per cent. When he is playing, they can go up 10 to 15 per cent. In a major event like the US Open, the ratings have gone up as much as 50 per cent when he is leading or in contention.”

The tournament promoter; Accenture Match Play Championship Executive Director Wade Dunagan

“We are thrilled Tiger Woods will be here to defend his title. Tiger has been the dominant player in this tournament’s history and in all of the World Golf Championship events. Combine Woods’ return with a field that includes some of the best young players the game has seen in quite some time and players who have taken the stage in Tiger’s absence, and this has the makings of the most exciting event in this tournament’s history.”

The coach; Hank Haney

“I’m obviously looking forward to see him playing again. In practice, Tiger’s been working on the same stuff that he’s always been working on, but he’ll be able to do it with a strong leg now. It will be a little different in the finish because his knee doesn’t give way. But Tiger is human. He has played one tournament in 10 months. I would think he would be a little rusty, but I really don’t know what to expect. Nothing with Tiger ever surprises me.”

The caddie; Steve Williams

“Nine months out of the game after a major operation is a long time but he’s a hell of a competitor and one of the best we’ve ever seen in this game so I would suspect he’ll carry right on. He’s had to modify his swing a little bit to accommodate his knee, but the guy always finds a way.”

The rival; Davis Love

“It’s been like Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky in their prime taking a season off. It takes the air out of the ball. But it really has given a lot of guys an opportunity, people come out and say, ‘These guys make birdies, too’. So it’s good for the game for people to realise there’s a lot of great golfers out here, and Tiger has to have somebody to compete against. But we miss him mostly as a friend. You know, I haven’t seen him in, what, seven months or more. We can survive without him, but we’ll do much better if he’d come out and play. We can’t wait to have him back.”

James Corrigan

The opponent: Tiger’s first-round foe

In the space of a few weeks, Brendan Jones has gone from being a golfer who claimed “he didn’t have a lot on the agenda” to the golfer with the most daunting challenge in the game. Many will look at the Australian drawn to play Tiger Woods in the first round of the WGC Match Play in Arizona on Wednesday and suspect that the task will be beyond him. Not only has the professional aged 33 – one thing he does share with Woods – failed to secure a Tour card in America but he has played even less than his opponent of late. “I’ve done really nothing in the last seven or eight weeks, I’ve been playing once a week with friends,” said the world No 64. “I’ve been trying to play a little more this week.” In fairness to Jones he has won eight times on the Japanese Tour and did win in Australia two years ago. That was in something called the Murrumbidgee Country Club Pro-Am.

James Corrigan

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