Revitalised Tiger Woods enjoying plenty of bucks for his bang
He admits playing in the desert is all about the money but he is also excited about pitting his wits against young pretender Rory McIlroy
Have clubs, will travel. Tiger Woods was never averse to making bucks quicker than he collected titles, but here at the Abu Dhabi Championship his glee for the fee is being revealed in all its transparent glory.
He was honest enough to admit that it's all about the $$$s as well as the Ws. But then, when your price has fallen by 50 per cent in two years – and one very public scandal – it is probably imperative to focus on the bottom line. Woods used to charge $3m for playing overseas. Now, The Independent understands the figure is $1.5m.
His stock may have dropped, but is he cheap at half the price? HSBC, the sponsors, probably believe he is and when Woods tees it up in tomorrow's first round alongside world No 1 Luke Donald and No 3 Rory McIlroy, a bank's embarrassment of riches will, at last, be easy to swallow. They have assembled one of the finest fields ever to line up in a regular European Tour event and in Woods they still have bought the player everyone wants to see. "I'd have to say, yes, it certainly does," said the world No 25, when asked if appearance fees affect his scheduling. "That's why a lot of guys play on the European Tour – they do get paid. The only tour which doesn't pay is the US Tour."
Hence Woods being in the Middle East, instead of on the West Coast. This tournament clashes with the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego, which just happens to be taking place at his beloved Torrey Pines, scene of six Woods victories, including his most famous of all – the "one-legged" US Open in 2008. "I've enjoyed playing there since I was a junior," he said. "Unfortunately, scheduling-wise, it didn't work out."
Money-wise more like, or so will say the critics. Yet there are sound golfing reasons to be in the Arabian Desert in the fourth week of January. The elite Euros, that blue and gold quartet who head the world rankings, are in attendance, ready to grant Woods the ideal benchmark for the extent of his golfing recovery. His win at the Chevron World Challenge six weeks ago, his first since the sex scandal broke more than two years ago, has, he believes, taken off the pressure and, with a new swing bedded in, he returns fresh and expectant.
Woods claims not to have felt physically fit for "eight, 10, 12 years" – ie, his heyday. The knee eventually stopped hurting in autumn last year and Woods was then delighted by the progress. "I wasn't able to practise until I got healthy and that's what was exciting about going to Australia," he said, reflecting on the two weeks he spent Down Under in which he finished third and contributed to his country's retention of the Presidents Cup. "I'd missed most of the year and to finally be able to get ready for a tournament properly and to do the type of [weight]lifting I needed saw my game come around. So it's very exciting."
For him and golf. There is a general sense, to which Woods would never confess, that this season could define the rest of his career, even his legacy. If he remains winless in the majors then Jack Nicklaus's mark will begin to take on the implausible tag. To get back to his best he must first beat the best and that is what makes this event so intriguing.
The "draw" was obvious. No disrespect to Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, the world Nos 2 and 4 respectively, but this is the threesome with everything. At the top of the triangle there is Donald, the ranking leader whom Woods was quick to praise, and then in the other corner comes the kid with the mostest. Last month, Donald told the world that, in terms of pure talent, he believed McIlroy was Tiger's superior. Cue outrage from all those Woods admirers, while those in golf merely shrugged. Maybe, maybe not. There is so much more to this game than talent.
There is nerve for starters, and believe it there will be jitters for McIlroy when he accompanies Woods up the first of The National. Gone are the days when there was tension between the pair, most notably in the Ryder Cup two years ago when McIlroy bluntly expressed his desire to play the fallen icon. In truth, McIlroy has always idolised Woods, but now the respect goes two ways as Woods can call him a fellow major winner.
Yesterday, after a rather humiliating photoshoot which featured Woods, McIlroy and Westwood having to perform a traditional Emirati dance, they even went out with each other for nine holes of practice and were seen laughing and talking about the Super Bowl. All that chumminess ceases tomorrow when Woods sets out to prove that, regardless of his status as the world's 25th best player, he remains the man. "I'm looking forward to it," was as far as he would go, although some muck-diggers will doubtless find a mischievous prod in his response to Donald's claim. "The most talented player I've ever seen was Seve," said Woods.
Make no mistake, McIlroy wanted this pairing as well. In Dubai in December, a few days after Woods had revisited the winner's enclosure, he spoke in deferential terms about the possibility of an imminent match-up. "You want to test yourself with the best in the game," he said. "To come up against Tiger would probably be the biggest challenge of my career." He was referring primarily to the back nine of a major, but, still, McIlroy will regard this as an intense start to the year. Talk about hitting the ground running.
As it proved yesterday, the only ones running here yesterday were the journalists – in circles. Even though the cricketers are in Abu Dhabi, Woods is without peer when it comes to a straight bat. Apart from the appearance fee confession, all we learnt was about Woods' well-being, his inevitable liking of cricket – he really wasn't going to say it was "boring", was he? – and his disappointment when it comes to his former coach, Hank Haney, writing about their time together.
Woods, however, would not reveal why he regards what will essentially be a golf book with such disdain. But one exchange with The Independent said so much about how guarded he feels towards a world he does not trust.
Q. Did you ever think Hank would write a book about you?
Q. Why not?
A. I don't know.
Q. Is it difficult to trust anyone in your coterie, if everything that happens is later revealed in books, or on TV?
A. One might say that.
Q. That must be sort of sad?
A. D'you think it's sad?
Q. I find it sad, yeah.
A. OK. There you go.
And there he goes, desperate for the validation of his own resurrection, while pocketing a few quid at the same time.
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