SHANGHAI – Three years ago at Sheshan International, hundreds of fans wanting an autograph stood outside the clubhouse where Tiger Woods was signing his scorecard at the HSBC Champions. They excitedly began chanting in Chinese, ''We want Tiger! We want Tiger!''
Their hopes faded and the chanting stopped when they realized he had left, and then a lone voice pierced the late afternoon air with a wistful plea in broken English.
''Tiger, where are you?''
That question resonates even louder this year.
The HSBC Champions embarks on a new era as a World Golf Championship that finally is treated the same as the other three – an official PGA Tour event.
But there's one big difference. Woods is a no-show.
He has been a huge supporter – and financial benefactor – of the WGCs since they began in 1999 by playing in 41 of 44 events. The three he missed were the Match Play in Australia when it was held just after the holidays in 2001, and two in early 2010 when Woods was recovering from the scandal in his personal life.
That he is not playing in Shanghai after a year that featured five wins and two injuries is not the issue. Eight other top players are not playing, either. The golf season never ends. Players can and should take breaks when it best suits their schedules. Adam Scott also is missing, though he faces a month of celebration in Australia, his first time home since winning the Masters.
What makes Woods' absence so unsettling to tournament organizers is that he's already in China.
He was in Hainan Island on Monday for an exhibition match (and a reported $2 million fee) against Rory McIlroy. He has at least one more outing, maybe more, scheduled this week in Asia. Woods and McIlroy played in China last year and both skipped the HSBC at Mission Hills. Two years ago, Woods was in Australia for outings during the HSBC, regarded as ''Asia's major.''
''I do think that's something, from the Tour's point of view, that does need to be looked at,'' Giles Morgan, global head of sponsorship and events for HSBC, said Tuesday. ''I'm not here to knock Tiger at all, because I feel that he's been absolutely instrumental in the growth. But we've reached a point where it's not about individuals. It's about growing the game of golf globally.
''I really hope that Tiger will want to come back in following years,'' he said. ''China is a vast country, so him playing a meaningless match yesterday doesn't really affect us. But yeah, we're disappointed.''
Morgan said he was told a few months ago by Woods' agent that this was not going to work with his schedule. After a week of corporate work, Woods is playing (for another big appearance fee) in the Turkish Open, a European Tour event.
Like other overseas events, HSBC once paid to get the best players. But now that it's a full-fledged WGC, big appearance fees have been replaced by an $8.5 million purse.
''What I can't do is pay him,'' Morgan said. ''And I feel enormously strong about that. This is a World Golf Championship. This is the flagship event of Asia. This is going to be the beacon to carry the game into this continent for many years to come. We could do the wrong thing by golf and drop the prize money right down and just pay one or two players huge fees. From a publicity standpoint, that would give us a certain amount of kudos because we'd get the top player in the world. And I'm absolutely not going down that route.
''We have an opportunity to be a genuine top-10 event in the world,'' he said. ''That requires a massive investment, which we're pleased to do. And that means we want to be an authentic sponsor in the world of golf.''
Morgan looked out across the range at Sheshan International at one of his strongest fields ever – 40 of the top 50 in the world, a group that includes McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, U.S. Open champion Justin Rose and PGA champion Jason Dufner. There are nearly two dozen Americans in the field. He believes it will get even stronger as more players realize the economic potential of playing in China.
Woods was instrumental in getting the HSBC Champions launched. He was runner-up in 2005 and 2006, attracting huge crowds. He returned in 2009 when it was a WGC (though not official on the PGA Tour) and was upstaged by Mickelson in the final round. And the London-based financial company has been involved with Woods as a founding partner of the Tiger Woods Learning Center.
''He's genuinely a friend of the company,'' Morgan said.
Woods hasn't been back since 2010.
These outings could signal a change in his economic model, for Woods no longer has the blue-chip corporate support he enjoyed for so many years. Since his personal life crumbled after he was exposed for serial adultery at the end of 2009, he no longer has endorsement deals with Accenture, AT&T, Gatorade, Gillette and Tag Heuer.
EA Sports is the most recent corporate relationship to end, after 15 years.
Woods signed a deal with Rolex in October 2011, and five weeks later announced a deal with Florida-based Fuse Science to display its logo on his bag. For the last two years, however, he hasn't added another sponsor. What remains unknown is whether companies aren't interested or the price tag is too high.
Meanwhile, HSBC staged a photo call Tuesday afternoon in the riverfront Bund district to celebrate the start of the tournament. It wasn't long ago that Woods and Mickelson shared the stage by playing Chinese checkers. This time, defending champion Ian Poulter was joined by Mickelson, McIlroy, Dufner and Rose. They dressed in ceremonial cloaks with traditional weapons and performed with the Shanghai Jingju Company on a rooftop overlooking the Bund.
The theme was ''returning heroes.''
Just not all of them.