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Woods leaves Aussies eager for his return

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MELBOURNE, Australia – Still wearing his gold jacket from winning the Australian 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 gathered outside the tournament office to see him one last time. Woods thanked them for their 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 volunteers laughed 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 fans who passed through the gates, tournament officials and anyone who caught a glimpse 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 he would return to defend his title.

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

He received a $3 million appearance fee to play in Australia, half of that paid by the state government.

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

The bigger question: What happens to golf in Australia when he doesn’t return?

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

“We had a massive spike,” said David Rollo, who runs tournament operations for IMG in Australia. “If we don’t have something that’s not 80 percent of this, 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 the largest ever for when Woods played the HSBC Champions the previous week in Shanghai. Woods now has won in 13 countries, and he has captured a trophy on every continent that plays golf. Even so, Melbourne is one of the world’s great sporting 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 reporter who was inside the ropes. She wasn’t sure why he was there, only that he had an unobstructed 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 Heath who plays off a 1 handicap and has a career-best round of 69. She knows her golf. Yet as Woods was about to tee off in the final round, she looked at the teenager 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 tickets in advance, rather they walk up to the gate on the day of the event. The PGA Tour found that out the hard way in 2001 for the Accenture Match Play Championship when the gallery was sparse until officials gave up on the weekly badges and went to daily tickets.

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

“I think that because he’s the No. 1 athlete in the world, people appreciated the fact that he came,” said Baker-Finch, a former British Open champion who helped with TV coverage. “He’s held in high regard. Everyone built him 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 goal was to attract top-ranked players outside of Australia. Victoria won the bidding war for Woods over New South Wales in Sydney, and it proved to be a boon. While the government paid half the appearance fee, it said the economic return in town was $20 million.

Not everyone was optimistic about Woods returning next year, especially since he is expected to be back in 2011 at Royal Melbourne for the Presidents Cup.

What happens in the meantime?

Woods’ appearance in the Quad City Classic as a 20-year-old in 1996 – he lost a 54-hole lead to Ed Fiori and tied for fifth – generated so much enthusiasm that the community rallied around its PGA Tour stop. Woods never returned, although what is now the John Deere Classic is attracting stronger fields than before, even in its spot on the calendar one week before the British Open.

Rollo said IMG is committed to bringing in three international players – in addition to the Australians – from the top 25 in the world. There was talk of making an offer to Phil Mickelson, along with a couple of other players who might move the needle.

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