Players leery of being paired with Woods


2010 WGC-CA Championship

DORAL, Fla. – Tiger Woods’ presence is inescapable.

They’re playing through it yet again at the WGC-CA Championship with a mushroom cloud of speculation erupting over high-profile reports of the possibility of Woods’ imminent return.

Two weeks ago, Woods was reported to be working hard on his game with swing coach Hank Haney at his Isleworth home outside Orlando. Last week, Jack Nicklaus said he couldn’t “in a hundred years” imagine that Woods will not play the Masters. Thursday, the New York Post reported that Woods had hired former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer to prepare a return at the Arnold Palmer Invitational with The Associated Press citing sources later that same day saying the Masters is more likely the target for his return.

While nobody outside Woods’ camp seems sure when Woods will end his self-imposed exile, players are beginning to prepare for a jolt unlike anything tournament golf’s ever seen.

“I anticipate a zoo,” 13-time PGA Tour winner Jim Furyk said of the atmosphere that will accompany Woods’ return.

While Furyk said he welcomes Woods rejoining the PGA Tour, he’s wary of the insanity that’s likely to come with his initial appearance. Furyk isn’t alone.

“It’s going to be an absolute circus,” four-time European Tour winner Graeme McDowell said.

While PGA Tour pros are eager for the boost Woods is expected to bring their sport in his return, there’s some trepidation, too. Who wants a spot in the center ring when the circus first hits town? Who wants to be paired with Woods in his first start back? Privately, a lot of players are dreading the possibility.

“Most players won’t mind if they’re left out of that,” two-time PGA Tour winner Henrik Stenson said.

Woods’ return promises to be more trumpeted than any sport’s ever seen.

It promises to surpass the frenzy that accompanied Muhammad Ali’s comeback in 1970 after he was suspended and stripped of his boxing title following his arrest for draft evasion.

Or Michael Jordan’s return to basketball in 1995 after his first retirement.

Or Ben Hogan’s comeback in 1950 just 11 months after he was nearly killed when his car crashed into a bus.

“When Tiger Woods returns, it will be the focus of intergalactic attention,” said Rick Horrow, CNN’s sports business analyst.

PGA Tour pros are as curious as media and players about what Woods will be like when he re-emerges, but the players are even more invested in the answer. How Woods returns, where he returns, impacts them in practical ways as his “co-workers.”

They’ll be watching with the deadline to commit to the Arnold Palmer Invitational approaching Friday.

Whenever Woods comes back, there are serious questions for his Tour brethren to consider.

How will galleries welcome back their best player? Is the ugly and unruly kind of fan that so many other sports know poised to invade the genteel world of tournament golf? In that regard, will all Woods’ colleagues pay a price for his indiscretions?

The most pressing question within the player ranks, though, focuses on how the scandal has impacted Woods’ game.

Did the public disgrace crack his protective armor?

Has shame damaged the confidence that’s made him such a formidable champion?

Will Woods return without his aura of invincibility?

“There’s no doubt we’re wondering about that,” McDowell said. “If he doesn’t come back and win quick, there’s no doubt his force field’s gone a little bit. All of a sudden, he’s more human. I think guys will view him more that way. His golf life had been perfection personified for 15 years, or whatever it’s been. His off-course life seemed squeaky clean as well.

“This guy’s been God-like. I think other players looked at him and said, `This guy’s unbelievable.’ All of a sudden, there’s a chink in the armor. Whether that equates to less invincibility on the golf course, I don’t know. Let’s hope, for our sake, he is less invincible, because let’s be honest, he’s pretty hard to beat when he’s on his game.”

Woods’ return will have the most jarring effect on players paired with him.

If he makes his return at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, he’ll fall into his traditional PGA Tour pairing category with other tournament winners. A computer will spit out his partners from among players who fall into that same category.

If he makes his return at Augusta National, Masters’ officials will choose who plays with him.

“I’m eager for him to get back out here, hopefully sooner rather than later,” said Steve Stricker, an eight-time PGA Tour winner who calls Woods his friend. “I don’t know if being in his group the first time he comes back is going to be easy. It will definitely be a challenge. I’ve thought about it. In some regard, you would like to be out there, to be with him the first time. Hopefully, that would make it easier for him, but it’s going to be hard for him and everyone in that group.”

Though security promises to be strong around Woods, with uniformed law enforcement officers expected inside the ropes and undercover security outside the ropes, players aren’t sure what to expect from the fans who won’t necessarily be coming to watch golf.

“If you get in a situation where people are heckling and trying to irritate him, they’re going to irritate other players,” Furyk said. “It definitely has a trickle-down effect.”

Woods’ situation has been mercilessly mocked since reports of his marital infidelity became public following the early morning incident of Nov. 27, when he crashed his SUV into a neighbor’s fire hydrant and tree. When Woods made his televised apology at the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse in Ponte Vedra Beach last month, three women dressed like strippers stood on the highway near the club’s entrance holding signs that read: “Pick me!” During the Farmers Insurance Open, a plane circled around the course carrying a banner that read: “We miss you Tiger! Déjà vu Showgirls.” Earlier this week, shock jock Howard Stern staged the Tiger Woods Mistress Beauty Pageant with three of Woods’ alleged mistresses competing.

The prospect of E! Online, People Magazine and supermarket tabloids entering the realm of tournament coverage gives players pause.

“Talking to the golf media [about Woods] isn’t a problem,” Furyk said. “It’s talking to outlets that don’t normally cover golf and ask the craziest questions, questions that are irrelevant.”

 These are the elements of Woods’ return players dread, but they also see a great upside.

“I’m excited about when he comes back,” three-time PGA Tour winner Ryan Palmer said. “When he first came out on Tour, there was a curiosity about him that brought people to the game. The curiosity is back, and it’s even greater.

“I think we’re going to have more people watching than ever before, and I expect he’ll come out stronger than ever. I won’t be surprised if he wins by a bunch right away.”

Palmer said he would relish being paired with Woods upon his return.

“I think we’re all excited about getting this over with and getting him back out here doing what he does best,” McDowell said. “To say we’re sick of all this is a little strong, but we’re ready to get him back. It’s going to be an unbelievable boost for golf.

“In my opinion, we’re going to see him back soon. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t play Bay Hill.”

Furyk looks forward to Woods re-establishing his place in the game.

“I think we’re all looking forward to having him back,” Furyk said. “He’s our best player, and we need him back. We’re just looking forward to when it’s business as usual, not the circus.”