Out of the Woods

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2007 WGC CA ChampionshipDORAL, Fla. ' This close to South Beach its easy to become lulled into a sleepy stupor by the warm ocean breezes and lively native wildlife. This close to the Masters, its just as easy to come down with a case of competitive tunnel vision.
 
It happened last year. It happens every year.
 
Tiger Woods, by way of an explanation more so than an excuse, is the florescent bulb that effortlessly draws in winged golf scribes. Were mesmerized by a three-quarter speed swing that produces straightaway power, by a game that should be licked in rust by months of inactivity but looks more like polished titanium.
 
Sergio Garcia
There are players other than Tiger Woods worth keeping an eye on this week. (Getty Images)
It is the nature of the PGA Tour smorgasbord, the steak always gets the most traffic. What is lost, particularly at majors and these world shindigs, is that the rest of the tee sheet is hardly ham in a can.
 
Last year on these same palm-lined fairways Woods began the delayed final turn five strokes behind eventual champion Geoff Ogilvy and there was a collective gasp when he failed to run down the Australian on Monday.
 
A losing streak of one, how would the markets ever survive?
 
But the truth is, all of these guys are good, not just the Superman in Sunday red. Our hearts and our heads tell us the range is lined with world-class players capable of beating the odds, but Woods aura, if not his resume, simply make that reality hard to digest.
 
On a bad wheel in 2008, Woods lost just two of his six starts (Doral and the Masters), never mind that 44 other Tour events, and a Ryder Cup, were won by someone not named Tiger.
 
Never mind that the hottest player on the planet is an unassuming Aussie who proved he could beat the best the world could throw at him at Doral just as easily as he could in the desert. Marketing types may pine for a Tiger-Phil Sunday duel, like that magical spring day in 2005 when this event answered to the name Ford Championship, but we would take a Tiger-Geoff mano-e-mano match and thank the golf gods for our good fortune.
 
Never mind that while Woods was away a new generation emerged that grew up with the World No. 1s accomplishments taped to their bedroom walls. That Anthony Kim won at Quail Hollow, a Woods hitching post; Congressional, home to Woods own event, and at Valhalla, with assists from a Boo, Phil and Paul but no one named Tiger. That Dustin Johnson has won twice with the most intimidating long ball since John Daly was hitting it straight.
 
Guys like myself and I know Camilo (Villegas), we havent done enough yet to warrant somebody saying that this guy has a legitimate shot (of overtaking Woods), Kim said. Now, hes back. We have to pull through and we have to win some golf tournaments with him in the field. I think things will change.
 
Know this about Tour players, 100 percent of them took a celebratory swig of their Amino Vital when Woods returned and not a single one of them thought to themselves, Second place isnt bad with Woods in the field. You dont earn a spot in one of the years most elite fields with a utility-infielders mindset.
 
On Wednesday after a relaxed 18 with Mike Weir, Woods gushed about his rebuilt knee and guessed about his game. Thirty-two holes at the Match Play wasnt exactly the road test he had in mind.
 
Stroke play is more of a marathon, Woods said. Youre trying to set yourself up for the last round. In match play, it is the last round each and every round you play.
 
Who knew Woods last round in Tucson would come on Thursday?
 
Not that he showed up in south Florida with one eye on Augusta National, but two tournaments in 10 months is hardly ideal and money games at Isleworth Country Club with your buddies are no substitute for Sunday pressure.
 
Im ready to win. Thats why Im here, Woods said in his signature simplicity.
 
It is, after his mind, the most important building block in Woods DNA that separates him from the pack. He doesnt place tee in ground ' at Doral or Augusta or Isleworth ' not fully expecting to walk away with the winners hardware.
 
Its what weve come to expect, what with a .274 (237 starts, 65 victories) all-time winning percentage on Tour, and it is what draws bug-eyed scribes to him regardless of conditions or the assembled cast.
 
Like fading house flies, we move toward the light regardless of reason, blind to the Ogilvys and Kims of the golf world. Call it an occupational hazard.
 
Taking Tiger over the field sounds good on Wednesday, but ' if we learned anything from the 2008 CA Championship ' in practice its hard not to like the field, regardless how brightly Woods flame burns.
 
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