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.
That doesn’t mean his prospects are any better.
Woods passes another mile marker 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 one will be at the Masters, where he finally returned to golf.
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 said with a grin.
The opening round Wednesday was no more than three 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.
Just like that, the 32 winners that day didn’t matter.
Players were ignored again two days later, when Woods gave a 13½-minute statement that was televised around the world.
He spoke about two 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,” Paul Casey said. “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. It was strange. 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 said.
Eight players advanced to the quarterfinals that day, a forgotten achievement. One of them was Stewart Cink, who went 19 holes to beat Charl Schwartzel, then walked back toward 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 said 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 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 behavior on the course is subject to interpretation.
Woods is signing more autographs, though never as many as some believe he should. That’s a battle Woods can never win. He was fined by the European Tour two weeks ago for spitting on the green in Dubai, a gesture that was more of an outrage in Britain than America.
Despite being the highest-ranked American and a three-time winner of the Match Play Championship, he declined to go to the media center for his pre-tournament interview 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.
John Cook caused a stir last week when he said he was on the practice range with Woods and “it clicked.” Then again, Cook was gushing about Woods’ swing when he came out of therapy last year.
Woods toned down the excitement Tuesday by clarifying what Cook meant.
“I got a better understanding of it,” Woods said. “I think that’s what John was saying. He was out there working with me and saw what I was working on with Sean (Foley, his swing coach). ... Now I just need to keep working on it and keep heading down this path.”
He is the biggest name at Dove Mountain, but not the best player at the moment.
The transgressions of the past are seldom mentioned except when he 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.
Martin Kaymer of Germany, who won the PGA Championship last year and can go to No. 1 in the world this week, is intriguing. Dustin Johnson has potential to be the next American star, along with Rickie Fowler. There are three teenagers in the field.
“I did not think we’d be in this good of shape a year later,” said Ben Crane, who took on the brunt of media requests at Dove Mountain the day Woods spoke. “I think we’ve shared the media load with a lot of younger players. For the average golf fan, it’s a more interesting game. For the non-golf fan, it’s not as interesting.
“Tiger hasn’t played a lot,” Crane said. “And he hasn’t played as well.”
It would help Woods to do a little of both before his next mile marker.