The game can't live without woods

Published : Feb 28, 2009 00:00 IST



Tiger Woods's absence through injury has only enforced the belief that he is bigger than the sport.

Meet Brendan Jones, a professional golfer whose life, like that of a cartoon character blissfully unaware there is a 20-tonne truck steaming his way, may be about to take a dramatic and possibly ugly turn. "I don't have very much on the agenda," the 33-yearold Australian said the other week - an innocuous enough observation to which there is only one response: well, you do now, mate.

Injuries and withdrawals might have an impact on the draw for the first round of the WGC World Match Play Championship in Arizona (February 25), but as things stood, Jones was due to play Tiger Woods in what will be the world No. 1's first competitive round of golf since beating Rocco Mediate in a playoff to win the US Open last June. Such are the privileges of the world's 64th-ranked golfer.

It will be a big day for Jones, who has plied a moderately successful career on the Japanese tour. It will be a big day for Woods, who has known nothing but golf since he was a toddler. And it will be a big day for professional golf, which has learned the uncomfortable lesson over the past eight months that one man may indeed be bigger than the sport. "I'm now ready to play again," Woods declared on his website. It was a brief statement but also weirdly pompous, as if prompting those who read it to make a note: where were you when Tiger Woods announced his comeback from injury?

AS IT HAPPENS, the caravan of professional golf was in two places: Perth, Australia, for the Johnnie Walker Classic, and Los Angeles, California, for the Northern Trust Open. The sense of relief was palpable in both. "I think we need him. It keeps the sponsors happy, which is a very important factor," said the Englishman Paul Casey in Perth. "He wouldn't be back if he wasn't fit and well and that could be quite ominous because he'll be raring to go. I think that he's going to be stronger and fitter and he's going to be better than he was before."

MEANWHILE ANTHONY KIM, the young American player promoted as golf's "next big thing" in Woods's absence, sounded delighted that he would no longer be required to carry such an onerous burden. "It's great for golf," he said. "I'm sure ticket sales will go right up. He's a friend of mine so I'll be glad to see him, and I'm sure his golf game will be topnotch. We'll see if I have the chance to play against him."

At the Riviera country club in Los Angeles, the mood was almost giddy. The PGA tour is by far the wealthiest and most powerful organisation in golf but it has suffered badly in the economic slump, losing sponsors and confidence in equal measure. With a reported �200m in reserves, it would be able to maintain its current level of prize money and marketing but there are some things money cannot buy, not least Woods's stature and charisma.

SUFFICE TO SAY that the past eight months have been a chastening experience for the PGA tour's commissioner, Tim Finchem, who, if he did not know before, knows now that he is the second most important man in golf. Within minutes of the publication of Woods's statement, the website of the PGA tour had been transformed into a shrine in his honour. "We are delighted Tiger is returning to competition and look forward to watching him compete," Finchem said.

The sentiments were shared on the practice range at the Riviera country club. Woods is both feared and revered among his peers, so it was unlikely anyone would be publicly indifferent or disdainful. But there was genuine delight that he is returning to the sport.

THERE WAS A GREAT DEAL of mirth, too, that he had chosen to make his announcement on the day that Phil Mickelson (who, curiously for a man with a sunny disposition and talent to burn, is neither revered or feared by his peers) had signed for a round of 63 to take the lead at the Northern Trust Open.

Like the support act at a U2 concert the American left-hander enjoyed a brief moment of glory before being kicked off the stage to make way for the main act.

"I imagine this has been the time of Tiger's life," said Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 US Open winner. "No airplanes, not having to deal with what he always deals with. But it's been seven months. He'll be hungrier than ever before. From golf's point-ofview it is good to have him back, and in this economy we need things that are good for the sport."

Ogilvy, the Australian who is ranked eighth in the world, is one of the players who might reasonably be expected to take advantage while Woods plays his way back into competitive form. Not that he is making any assumptions about the rest of the season.

"Anybody can beat you in match play," Ogilvy said of Woods's immediate prospects. "You can play well and lose. But if he starts winning and gets his bearings, we've all seen it before. He usually goes all the way."

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009

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