Tiger's abscence felt

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LOS ANGELES, January 6 – For an invisible man, Tiger Woods casts quite a shadow over the 2010 US PGA Tour season.
Just when and where the embattled world number one will return from his "indefinite break" from golf are questions looming over the season that opens Thursday with the SBS Championship at Kapalua.

But the most intriguing question is how Woods will perform when he does return in the wake of the public relations nightmare that engulfed him at the end of 2009.

Woods, winner of 82 tournaments worldwide, closed the year with a stunning fall from grace, admitting infidelity to wife Elin, who is reportedly set to divorce him amid reports he had as many mistresses as major titles: 14.

Many of Woods’ fellow pros say they think he’ll return quickly to the form that saw him win six Tour events and seven titles worldwide in 2009, capturing his 10th Player of the Year award in 13 years.

In fact, Woods swept all of the big PGA Tour awards for 2009, although he didn’t return to competition until February after a months-long layoff recovering from knee surgery.

But European Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie said that after the lurid headlines and sponsor defections, Woods won’t have the same "mystique".

"There is no question there was an aura about Tiger Woods over this incredible record he has, not just in majors but in other world events. That wall has been split slightly and there are cracks," Montgomerie told the BBC.

It was just what the PGA Tour, already reeling from a weak economy and sponsor pullouts, didn’t need to hear.

Commissioner Tim Finchem tried to put a positive spin on the matter, but he had to admit the circuit is worse off without Woods.

"We’re in a down economy. It’s hard to sell. And having the number one player in our sport not play is not a positive thing and it does hurt television ratings," Finchem said. "It won’t be at the same levels without our number one player. No sport would be."

Finchem said he had no idea when Woods would resume playing – and his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles.

His first shot at adding to his tally would come at the Masters in April. The strictly controlled confines of Augusta National might be a more comfortable place to make a public return.

But a lengthy layoff would be poor preparation for a major campaign, so Woods might aim for Doral and Bay Hill beforehand.

Two other 2010 majors are on courses where Woods has triumphed before: the US Open at Pebble Beach, California, and the British Open at storied St. Andrews.

With Woods in limbo, rival Phil Mickelson will try to build on a strong finish to a 2009 season that included four victories.

Mickelson said after his victory in the WGC-HSBC Champions in November that he was "starting to play the best golf of my career."

"My short game is better than it’s ever been and going into 2010, not only am I excited about it, but I have very high expectations."

And this year, Mickelson will play without the weight of worry that followed his wife Amy’s diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer in 2009.

Woods’ absence may also see the spotlight trained on rising youngsters like US Tour rookie Rickie Fowler and young stars from overseas like Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa and, notably, Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy.

McIlroy, 20, is the youngest player to reach the top 10 in the world rankings. He has joined the US tour and will play at least 15 events along with at least eight on the European tour.

South Korea’s Yang Yong-Eun, who held off Woods in the final round of the PGA Championship to become Asia’s first major champion, will try to add to that success.

Other well known names will try to rebound from disappointing seasons.

Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, who won two major titles and PGA Player of the Year honors in 2008, didn’t win in 2009 but displayed solid form at the end of the year that had him looking forward to 2010.

Veteran Vijay Singh and up and coming American Anthony Kim are two more players who will be trying to turn things around after winless 2009 campaigns.

Spain’s Sergio Garcia goes into the year nursing a hand injury, but European Order of Merit winner Lee Westwood could make his presence felt in America, as well as at the Ryder Cup when Europe host America in the matchplay showdown at Celtic Manor in Wales in October.

While Woods is the greatest imponderable of 2010, US tour players will also get to grips with new rules limiting the depth and shape of grooves on irons. That will make it harder to spin and stop the ball – especially out of the rough.

With the new grooves, Stewart Cink said, "the clubs just don’t have any forgiveness like they used to."

"It’s going to affect everybody pretty much the same way," he predicted. "It’s a change. It’s quite different when anything other than a perfect dry lie is encountered."

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