MELBOURNE, Australia – The woman keeping score for Tiger Woods in the final round of the Australia Masters did well to contain her emotions. She looked down at the boy holding the sign with the scores and wanted to make sure he understood his good fortune.
“This,” she whispered to him, “is the holy grail in golf.”
Is it still?
Perhaps the broader question is will it ever be again?
Woods returned Down Under on Tuesday with a slightly subdued reception. There were still media at the airport, although Geoff Ogilvy did not recall the same kind of TV report he heard last year: “The plane has landed, but we haven’t seen him walk out of the plane yet!”
There were no helicopters hovering over the fairways, because Woods did not bother coming out to Victoria Golf Club. And when he tees off Thursday, he most likely will be playing before fewer fans.
The tournament sold out last year six weeks in advance – as much as Aussies love sports, most buy tickets the day of an event. Now, tickets are still for sale. Tournament official David Rollo said 55,000 tickets have been sold for the four rounds, and he would be disappointed if sales didn’t top 70,000. They topped 100,000 last year.
That’s to be expected, and not because of the year Woods had off the golf course.
The world’s No. 1 player had not been to Australia since the 1998 Presidents Cup. Since then, he had won 72 times around the world, 14 majors and was being debated as the greatest golfer of all time.
Now, he is No. 2 in the world and hasn’t won in 51 weeks.
“It’s easier to hype up someone who hasn’t been here for 10 years,” Ogilvy said. “He was here just last year. A lot has happened in Tiger’s life in the last 12 months, but I think if there is any lack of hysteria, it’s probably due to the fact that he was here last year rather than anything else. Don’t you think? You guys want me to say that his aura is all gone and he’s no good anymore. But I don’t buy that.”
It was Australia where the National Enquirer linked Woods to New York nightclub hostess Rachel Uchitel, and more allegations of infidelity came gushing out in the weeks following Woods’ middle-of-the-night car accident Nov. 27 outside his Florida home.
That scandal is what kept Woods out of golf for nearly five months and ultimately led to his divorce. It didn’t do much for his golf game, either, for this is the longest he has gone without winning.
Woods acknowledged as much last week after he tied for sixth in the HSBC Champions, which for him constituted progress. Reflecting on a summer of finishing back in the pack, he said, “I was dealing with a lot of things off the golf course in that period of time, which was the most difficult. I also was trying to play, which was tough.”
He was talking about constant meetings with attorneys while trying to work out a divorce settlement, which was official Aug. 23.
There has not been much talk about his personal life since.
If the mystique is missing, it has more to do with the scores he shoots than the secret life he was leading.
Cameron Percy played with Woods in the final round at Kingston Heath. Contacted about a month later, after seeing Woods’ image splashed across the TV worldwide for reasons no one ever imagined, Percy was asked what kind of reception Woods could expect if he returned to defend his title in Australia.
“I can’t see this being an issue,” Percy said last December. “Our biggest idol is Greg Norman—not much difference there. The golfing public just loves to watch his golf. We have athletes in trouble for one thing or another. Once they’re on the sporting field, it’s all right.”
That’s the problem.
There hasn’t been much about Woods’ game that has been worth watching.
Woods tied for sixth at Shanghai for the second straight year, with one big difference. Last year he was five shots off the lead; this year he was 12 shots behind. In his last eight tournaments, Woods has finished an average of 13 shots behind.
That’s the significance of the Australian Masters this year.
Woods has been a defending champion every year since he was at least 12, maybe longer. But if he doesn’t win at Victoria, a sandbelt course that he will not see until the pro-am Wednesday, an entire year will have passed without him hoisting a trophy. To what extent he can ever repair his image, it starts with winning.
Some think he is close.
Rickie Fowler played behind him at the Ryder Cup, when Woods played the final seven holes in 7-under par, and said, “It was pretty special. He looked like he was strutting around the course like I used to see on TV.”
Robert Allenby played behind Sunday at Sheshan International and thought he was “super close.”
“I think next year is going to be a great year for him,” Allenby said. “I have no doubt in my mind that he’ll win a major next year.”
Ernie Els played with him two rounds in Shanghai and another round in Boston.
“It looks like he’s in a better place,” he said.
Maybe so, but Woods is not where he wants to be, and certainly not where anyone is used to seeing him.
Fans at the Australian Masters might not turn out in droves because they just saw him a year ago.
Those who do might not recognize him now.