DORAL, Florida – One of the billboards at Doral promotes this World Golf Championship with a familiar slogan and some familiar faces, a photo sequence of five players under the phrase, “The World is Watching.”
Tiger Woods is the center photo. He’s the only one watching this week.
His presence, even after all this time away from the game, remains prominent.
It’s hard to walk more than a few yards on the practice range at the CA Championship without hearing chatter about Woods. Players say very little publicly when asked about the absence of the world’s No. 1 player, some choosing their words carefully, most saying they have enough to worry about with their own games.
Privately, they speculate and share the latest inside gossip on his return just as much as anyone else.
But as golf moves closer to the first major of the year – the Masters is a month away – Woods became a topic Wednesday as much for his standard of golf as the reason why he’s not at Doral.
The season began two months ago with speculation on who might fill the void left by Woods, with most of the focus on Phil Mickelson.
Instead, he has been replaced by committee.
Ten tournaments into the PGA Tour season, there have been 10 winners. Steve Stricker is the only player who was in the top 10 at the start of the year to have won anywhere in the world, his victory coming at Riviera.
“I think it’s just a coincidence,” Stricker said. “It always comes back to the depth of the tour, just how good these guys are, and how tough it is to win. How many multiple winners were there last year?”
He wasn’t trying to make a point, only ask a question. The answer is seven – Woods, Mickelson, Stricker, Geoff Ogilvy, Zach Johnson, Kenny Perry and Brian Gay. Mickelson was the only player to win multiple times when Woods was in the field.
When he won at Riviera, it was Stricker’s fourth victory in his last 15 starts, which computes to winning 27 percent of his starts. Good stuff, until he realizes that it’s still lower than Woods’ winning rate of 30 percent for his career.
Asked if he would like to see the streak continue of different winners each week, Stricker smiled as he tried to think of a clever answer, before settling on a simple “No.”
He was among the favorites in the 68-man field at Doral, comprised of players from the top 50 in the world ranking and top players from the money lists on six major tours around the world.
“It’s still a world-class field, and it will take a strong winner,” Lee Westwood said. “You still have to be on top of your game to win.”
Take himself out of the mix and Stricker would favor Mickelson, the defending champion at Doral. A year ago, Mickelson battled through dehydration brought on by food poisoning to hold off Nick Watney in the final round and capture his first WGC event.
Mickelson has yet to win this year, which most likely has more to do with his struggle at home as his wife recovers from breast cancer than any technical aspect of his game. Without a pro-am this week, Mickelson was not due to arrive at Doral until Wednesday evening.
Camilo Villegas is coming off a victory in the Honda Classic last week and might be the hottest player in golf. In five tournaments, the only time he failed to finish in the top 10 was his season debut in Abu Dhabi, where he tied for 19th.
“Obviously, I’ve had a good start for the year,” Villegas said. “But it’s not the way I think. Just try to keep going. I’ve had a great attitude all year, and I came pretty close in Match Play and I had a chance there at Phoenix. But tomorrow is Thursday, and trust me, every Thursday, we start from zero. It’s time to forget what happened the previous week.”
Ian Poulter is three weeks removed from his first victory in America at the Match Play Championship, while Ogilvy is a past WGC winner at Doral who opened the year with a victory in Kapalua.
The other winners on the PGA Tour are Ryan Palmer, Bill Haas, Ben Crane, Dustin Johnson, Cameron Beckman and Hunter Mahan.
“It’s not an oddity or a coincidence. It’s only an oddity when you have 25 winners in 25 tournaments,” British Open champion Stewart Cink said. Then he added with a wink and a smile, “Besides, I’m winning the next two.”
Stricker began his PGA Tour career when it was a big deal for any player to win more than four times in one season. Nick Price (six wins in 1994) was the only player to do that in the 15 years before Woods showed up. Since then, Woods has gone only three seasons when he didn’t win at least four times, one of those as a rookie in 1996 when he played only eight tournaments (and won two).
“He makes it look easy, but it’s not,” Stricker said. “But it’s good for the game when we get both—a variety of winners, and it’s good when we get guys who continuously win. Everyone loves David against Goliath. It’s good to have top guys going down the stretch against a guy who doesn’t win as much.”
Two months into Woods’ infidelity break, it has been hard to identify the top guys who win all the time.