SAN DIEGO (AP)—The player who walked toward the first tee at sunrise on theNorth Course at Torrey Pines was not accompanied by a security detail.Maintenance workers did not gather on the pro shop balcony to watch him tee off.
This was Nicholas Thompson , not Tiger Woods .
And that’s why the “indefinite break” from golf that Woods announced twomonths ago didn’t really start until Tuesday.
It has been 53 days since golf’s biggest star announced he was stepping awayto sort out a private life that has run amok through tabloids and gossipmagazines because of his extramarital affairs.
Truth is, little has changed during his absence.
At least so far.
The U.S. PGA Tour is only three weeks into its new season, three events thatWoods usually doesn’t play. Besides, not as many Americans watch golf duringthose weeks, from behind the ropes or on the sofa. Not when the tournaments areplayed on two islands in the Pacific or four courses in the California desert.Not when they are held the same weekend as the NFL playoffs.
Torrey Pines, however, is different.
It’s the first tournament on U.S. network television. It’s where Woods andhis chief rival, Phil Mickelson , typically start their seasons.
How much will the tour miss Woods? Now is the time to start keeping score.
This is a big week for Tom Wilson, the tournament director of what now iscalled the Farmers Insurance Open. This might be the only U.S. PGA Tour event inhistory that had four names in the span of one year—the Buick Invitational,the Century Club of San Diego Invitational, the San Diego Open and the FarmersInsurance Open.
General Motors filed for bankruptcy, knocking out Buick as the titlesponsor. The tournament found a replacement only last week, and Wilson isoptimistic that Farmers will be interested in signing on for more than just thisyear.
It would have helped to have Woods around this week, bringing the energy andcrowds that once accompanied him.
Woods has missed this tournament only once when healthy, in 1997 when he wasplaying for appearance money overseas and won the Asian Honda Classic by 10shots. He had to skip last year while recovering from knee surgery, although hestill managed to steal some headlines by announcing hours after the final roundthat his wife had given birth to their son, Charlie.
Torrey Pines has become the tour’s signature stop on the West Coast Swing,awarded the prime spot on the calendar between the NFL’s conference championshipgames and the Super Bowl. It’s no surprise that its TV ratings have dwarfedevery other tournament on the West Coast, helped in part by Woods winning fiveof the last six times he played.
The difference now, of course, is not only what’s keeping him away but theuncertainty of when he will return.
By now, players have accepted that Woods is on leave and that his personallife is a wreck. There really is nothing else to say beyond the daily dose ofgossip. What really happened that night he drove his SUV over a fire hydrant andinto a tree? Is he really at a sex addiction clinic in Mississippi? Did his wifeparticipate in the program? Does their marriage have a chance?
The bigger question, which no one can answer, is when he will return.
Rocco Mediate is back at Torrey Pines for the first time since that 19-holeplayoff loss to Woods in the 2008 U.S. Open. Mediate missed last year with aknee injury, which largely went unnoticed. He went to the putting green onMonday and told his caddie, “A little different here.” Missing were thousandsof fans surrounding the practice range on the North Course.
Missing was his adversary that day, Woods.
“Yeah, that’s really different,” Mediate said. “Any time he’s not in thefield, it’s obviously not the best field we have. You always want your best guy.It always makes it what it’s supposed to be, especially (since) he’s won here712 times. So it’s hard to beat that guy here.”
His absence will continue to capture attention if he’s not at the Match PlayChampionship (where he returned a year ago) or another World Golf Championshipat Doral the second week of March, or at Bay Hill for the Arnold PalmerInvitational.
Nick Watney was reminded of his victory last year, when hours after he leftTorrey Pines with the trophy, word leaked that Woods had become a father again.So if Watney were to win again, could history repeat itself with anotherannouncement from Woods? And what would the announcement be?
Watney laughed at the possibility.
“I hope it would be that he’s coming back,” Watney said. “Because we needhim.”