Woods leaves Aussies eager for his return


MELBOURNE, Australia (AP)—Still wearing his gold jacket from winning theAustralian Masters, with his car waiting to take him to the airport, Tiger Woods had one more stop to make at Kingston Heath.

He stood atop a bench and looked out at some 250 volunteers who had gatheredoutside the tournament office to see him one last time. Woods thanked them fortheir support, saying his week would not have been as special without them.

In true Aussie fashion, one bloke wasn’t interested in a speech.

“What about those errant shots?” he interrupted as his fellow volunteerslaughed along.

“You’re supposed to kick those back into the fairway,” Woods replied.“Make sure you learn that next time I’m here.”

That left everyone—volunteers in the parking lot, more than 100,000 fanswho passed through the gates, tournament officials and anyone who caught aglimpse of the world’s No. 1 player—with a couple of nagging questions.

When exactly does Woods come back?

“I would love to,” he said on three occasions, without saying whether hewould return to defend his title.

The only time Woods didn’t defend a title on the U.S. PGA Tour, except forbeing injured, was when the old BellSouth Classic changed its dates in 1999 toone week before the Masters. Woods never plays that week. International events,with their appearance money, are different. Woods twice did not return to defenda title, after the 1997 Asian Honda Classic and the 2000 Johnnie Walker Classic,both in Thailand.

He received a $3 million appearance fee to play in Australia, half of thatpaid by Victoria state government.

“I don’t think he’s expected to come back,” Ian Baker-Finch said. “But itwould be great if he did to defend.”

The bigger question: What happens to golf in Australia when he doesn’treturn?

For a country that produces more U.S. PGA Tour players than any otheroutside the United States, golf Down Under has been lagging over the last decadewith a drop in sponsorship and interest. Not since Greg Norman was No. 1 in theworld has there been the kind of buzz that took Kingston Heath hostage for allof last week.

“We had a massive spike,” said David Rollo, who runs tournament operationsfor IMG in Australia. “If we don’t have something that’s not 80 percent ofthis, we’ll have lost an opportunity.”

The appeal of Woods was alarming.

Yes, he attracts large crowds wherever he goes. The fans in China were thelargest ever for when Woods played the HSBC Champions the previous week inShanghai. Woods now has won in 13 countries, and he has captured a trophy onevery continent that plays golf. Even so, Melbourne is one of the world’s greatsporting cities, used to seeing some of the biggest stars in cricket, rugby,tennis, swimming.

Woods captivated them like few others.

A woman standing near the first green on Saturday looked down on a reporterwho was inside the ropes. She wasn’t sure why he was there, only that he had anunobstructed view of Woods.

“This must be the greatest day of your life,” she said.

The walking scorer with Woods’ group on Sunday is a member at Kingston Heathwho plays off a 1 handicap and has a career-best round of 69. She knows hergolf. Yet as Woods was about to tee off in the final round, she looked at theteenager holding the scoreboard and said, “This is the holy grail in golf.”

Melbourne is the kind of place where sports fans don’t typically buy ticketsin advance, rather they walk up to the gate on the day of the event. The U.S.PGA Tour found that out the hard way in 2001 for the Accenture Match PlayChampionship when the gallery was sparse until officials gave up on the weeklybadges and went to daily tickets.

For the Australian Masters, tickets sold out in the first week in October,and 35 percent of the sales were outside the state or country. That’s unheard offor this city.

“I think that because he’s the No. 1 athlete in the world, peopleappreciated the fact that he came,” said Baker-Finch, a former British Openchampion who helped with TV coverage. “He’s held in high regard. Everyone builthim up. It was a special week, not just for golf, but for Australia and sport.To me, he over-delivered.”

Rollo said when IMG decided to take over the Australian Masters, its goalwas to attract top-ranked players outside of Australia. Victoria state won thebidding war for Woods over New South Wales, and it proved to be a boon. Whilethe state government paid half the appearance fee, it said the economic returnin town was $20 million.

Not everyone was optimistic about Woods returning next year, especiallysince he was expected to be back in 2011 at Royal Melbourne for the PresidentsCup.

What happens in the meantime?

Woods’ appearance in the Quad City Classic in Illinois as a 20-year-old in1996—he lost a 54-hole lead to Ed Fiori and tied for fifth—generated so muchenthusiasm that the community rallied around its U.S. PGA Tour stop. Woods neverreturned, although what is now the John Deere Classic is attracting strongerfields than before, even in its spot on the calendar one week before the BritishOpen.

Rollo said IMG is committed to bringing in three international players—inaddition to the Australians—from the top 25 in the world. There was talk ofmaking an offer to Phil Mickelson , along with a couple of other players whomight move the needle.

“Hopefully, there were a lot of kids who were out there or watched on TVand said, ‘I want to be part of that,”’ Rollo said. “Hopefully, that will beTiger’s legacy going forward.”