Tiger Woods is the talk of the Match Play Championship again. At least this year, it’s about how he plays, not what he says.
Woods passes another milestone this week on what appears to be a slow road back. The first was Thanksgiving, the one-year anniversary of when his life came crashing down around him. The next will be at the Masters, where he finally returned to golf.
Talking Tiger: Woods returns to the Match Play Championship as the man to watch. Photo Reuters
It was a year ago at the Match Play Championship that Woods showed just how much golf revolves around him.
“The day the world came to a standstill,” Retief Goosen says with a grin.
The opening round was just 3 hours old when word came that Woods, who had been in seclusion since revelations of his extramarital affairs, would be speaking publicly for the first time from across the country at the TPC Sawgrass, US.
Just like that, the 32 winners that day didn’t matter.
Players were ignored again two days later, when Woods gave a 13-and-a-half-minute statement that was televised around the world. He spoke about 2 hours before third-round matches, and Dove Mountain was buzzing with media. They weren’t there for the golf.
“I remember turning up to the golf course and there were 50 media guys around the clubhouse, waiting for us to go to the locker room,” pro-golfer Paul Casey says. “It was headphones in and hat on. Even if I did want to speak, I didn’t know what to say. We were trying to absorb it as much as everyone. I don’t know about the rest of the players. I watched it with curiosity.”
Goosen avoided the media by going through a back entrance, and he wasn’t alone. “They were all standing there waiting for you to say something and blow it all out of proportion,” Goosen says.
Eight players advanced to the quarter-finals that day, a forgotten achievement. One of them was Stewart Cink, who went 19 holes to beat Charl Schwartzel, then walked back towards the clubhouse to see a larger-than-usual group of reporters waiting for him.
He was asked seven questions—all about Woods. “I wanted to talk about my match,” Cink says with a laugh. “I did get a couple of questions...from the PGA Tour media official.”
Ian Poulter didn’t even turn on the TV that morning. He didn’t want anything to distract from his match, and not watching meant he would have nothing to say. “It makes it pretty easy,” Poulter said that day.
They all know what Woods means to the game. They play for $8.5 million (around Rs38.5 crore) in these World Golf Championships, a sum that wouldn’t exist except for Woods driving interest and TV ratings over the years.
Those who spoke said all the right things, that Woods’ apology sounded sincere and that they hoped he could get to back to golf soon. Indeed, Woods returned to the golf course two months later.
As for the player they remembered? Well, they’re still waiting.
It has been 15 months and 17 tournaments since his last victory, the longest drought of his career. During a previous dry spell, his only win in 23 tournaments was the Match Play Championship. Anything can happen this week.
His behaviour on the course is subject to interpretation.
Despite being the highest-ranked American and a three-time winner of the Match Play Championship, he declined to go to the media centre for his pre-tournament interview on Tuesday, instead making TV crews and reporters set up on the back side of the clubhouse so he could get it out of the way before his practice round. For a guy trying to make amends, Woods still insists on calling the shots.
Ultimately, though, it comes down to his golf.
Woods is the biggest name at Dove Mountain, but not the best player at the moment—Martin Kaymer of Germany, who won the PGA Championship last year, can go to No. 1 in the world this week. The transgressions of the past are seldom mentioned except when Woods marks an anniversary he would rather forget. Most would agree that golf is better when he is playing well, although the game managed to survive.
Ben Crane, who took on the brunt of media requests at Dove Mountain the day Woods spoke, says: “Tiger hasn’t played a lot. And he hasn’t played as well.”
It would help Woods to do a little of both before his next mile marker.
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